Does hate + crime = hate crime?

Here’s the story.

On Sunday morning, gunman Jim Adkisson killed an usher and another member of the congregation at the Tennesse Valley Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville.

Kids from the TVUU were staging a version of “Annie,” a testament to the glancingly conventional nature of Unitarian Universalist worship.

Adkisson reportedly opened fire on what he thought was the local garrison of a vast left wing conspiracy to thwart his career and cut off his food stamps. Instead, he fatally interrupted a weekend musical revue.

He’s been arrested and the FBI is reportedly involved, with an eye toward prosecuting the slayings as a hate crime.

In Minneapolis, the First Universalist Church in Uptown is one of the nation’s oldest Unitarian Universalist congregations. It’ll celebrate its 150th anniversary next year, just a year after of the state’s own sesquicentennial. It’s about as established as any denomination could get in these parts.

About 40 people showed up last night on the steps of a former synagogue there — the six-pointed stars still mark the end of every pew in the sanctuary — to mourn the dead in Tennessee.


“Today, we learned the gunman specifically targeted this congregation,” summer pastor Kelli Clement told those assembled. “They were out front in their social action. It was easy to find them. It could have been us. I read the reports and heard the news and its not their sanctuary I see. It’s ours.” She talked to the folks gathered there about fury and compassion, too.

Compare that to another incident on the other side of the globe in the news on the same day: a trio of presumably Sunni suicide bombers killed 32 Shiites making a pilgrimage through Baghdad to the mosque commemorating Imam Moussa al-Kadhim. It’s hard to argue that the Baghdad explosions weren’t a sectarian act — even if the pilgrimage started out as an ordinary act of faith.

The shootings in Knoxville Sunday may have happened in a place of worship, but it’s hard to equate them to religious violence like the bombings in the Middle East, or even the Troubles in Ireland.

The shootings don’t really fit conventional definitions of “hate,” either: they don’t have the racist dimension of the 16th Street Church bombing in 1963, or the anti-Semitic root of the attack on the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center day care center in 1999.

The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist congregation was apparently openly supportive of gay and women’s rights – they had a cafe for gay teens there – but Sunday’s deaths don’t really have parallel in the slayings of Matthew Shepard or sexual or domestic violence, either.

In Minneapolis last night, even Clement was grasping to define what went wrong during the services in Tennesee on Sunday.

pastor.JPG“I’m from Texas. There is a level of hatred for all things liberal, and in some parts of the country, liberal is a dirty word,” she said, before the vigil started. “Maybe its a crime of ideology…We are openly, proudly liberal.”

Maybe that’s it.

There’s reason, though, that bias crimes are set apart from ordinary, run-of-the-mill greed or evil: their motivation is based on some perceived distinction that we all agree is irrational and unacceptable to express in civilized society. The added sanctions for bias crimes are supposed to be a public expression of that approbation.

But political differences are kind of the founding principal of the American enterprise.

They may be divisive, or mistaken or heartfelt or any number of other things. But as long as they’re not expressed with gunfire or a noose, politics are generally considered legitimately held belief, even in the extreme.

The shootings in Knoxville may be tragic, criminal, sinful, heartbreaking and even insane.

But are they hate?

Audio: What kind of crime was this? Excerpt of an interview with Kelli Clement.