Friday, July 01, 2005

The spectrum of hate

It's appearing likely that recent shooting death in Seattle -- a popular tennis coach gunned down by a West Seattle roadside -- was, judging by the Seattle Times report, in fact a black-on-white hate crime:
Two days before Newport High School tennis coach Mike Robb was shot to death while driving in West Seattle, the 18-year-old suspected of killing him was walking around a nearby neighborhood with a shotgun and said that he "wanted to kill a white man," an acquaintance said yesterday.

The acquaintance, Greg Triggs, also 18, said he took a box of shotgun shells from the suspect, Samson Berhe, who was with a friend who also was armed with a shotgun. Triggs said he briefly kept one of the shotguns.

Triggs said Berhe "was always talking crazy like that." He said he didn't take the threats seriously or call police.

A similar report was made last night by KIRO-7 television. It seems the teen wasn't the only one reporting that the suspect had made these threats:
Neighbors told KIRO 7 Eyewitness News the teen said he had a grudge against white people.

"He always say that he (was) gonna kill all the white people in the world," said Anna Bell Perkins. "Samson had, like, some sort of complex against Caucasian people. And he said he wanted to kill them all and told me I could watch," said another neighbor.

The P-I report has further details:
Samson Berhe twisted up his face, drooled and spoke in different voices to the two detectives questioning him about the shooting of a popular tennis coach, at one point flexing his muscles and challenging them to a fight.

In court documents filed yesterday, police say the teen called the detectives "all you haters," and, when asked to explain what he meant, punctuated his reply with an expletive: "all you ... white people!"

Berhe is now charged with first-degree murder in the death of Mike Robb, a popular Newport High School tennis coach who was shot Sunday in his car in West Seattle. Berhe was taken from King County's youth center to the adult jail yesterday, his 18th birthday.

Seattle police -- who'd dealt with the teen five times in the week before the shooting -- say he'd told neighbors he wanted to kill a white person or a police officer. One neighbor said Berhe, who is black, claimed at least a dozen times that he was "going to kill all the white people."

One of his friends -- a man whom police encountered with Berhe just hours before the shooting -- recalled Berhe stating it as an apparent mission:

"I got to shoot a cop or shoot a white person, you know, before I leave this world."

It's worth noting, of course, that none of these reports discuss this as a hate crime. That's fairly typical of the real lack of understanding among most working journalists of the nature of hate crimes.

Judging from the facts we know so far, this is an extremely disturbing case. The victim, a highly regarded Newport High tennis coach named Mike Robb, evidently pulled over on his way back from officiating an event on the other side of Puget Sound to assist the suspect, who it appears was faking automotive distress, and then hit him point blank in the head with a shotgun. It doesn't get much lower than that.

However, according to the Times report, there may have been a little more than just racial hatred at play:
Triggs' 46-year-old mother, Kelly, said Berhe was troubled. "He'd get all drugged up and say he was the Messiah," she said. "He'd say he wanted to see what it was like to kill someone."

Similarly, there's this in the P-I report:
Meanwhile, information from police and court papers show a teen with mental health problems. A week before the shooting, Berhe's mother told officers that the teen's doctor had taken him off his medication for mental illness, according to police.

These cases always become more complicated when there is a mental-illness issue involved, as there was in the Buford Furrow case. In one case in Montana, involving a mentally ill white man who walked up and gunned down a black man at rest stop in front of his family, no hate-crime charges were ever pursued; the man was simply institutionalized in the state mental hospital.

Regardless of the outcome in terms what kind of justice the perpetrator will face, this story drives home one of the real truths about hatred -- not just racial hatred, but all kinds of hatred of The Other: It is a festering toxin that infects all our lives and brings ruin to our homes.

It brings to mind another recent case involving a hate crime in an Illinois suburb:
Two men face hate crime charges in connection with the beating of two teenagers last week at the Illinois Beach State Park in suburban Zion.
Prosecutors say 29-year-old Patrick Langballe and 20-year-old Aaron Rush attacked two teenaged girls after the girls told the men they were lesbians. Officials say the men told the girls they were part of a neo-Nazi group.

Langballe is from north suburban Winnetka. He was convicted of vandalism charges after painting swastikas on a temple in Northfield back in 1997.

There's a similar report from a CBS affiliate:
Officials say one of the men made a sexual advance toward one of the girls when she told him she was a lesbian and in a relationship with the other girl.

The suspects allegedly told the girls they were Nazi skinheads and did not like homosexuals.

A fight broke out and left one girl with minor injuries.

This is, of course, only a relatively minor assault. But what's noteworthy about this is that neo-Nazis are typically understood to attack blacks and other ethnic minorities, especially Jews. That is, we tend to think of their hatred as primarily racial and ethnic hatred.

This is why, I think, so many evangelicals feel safe waging a holy war against homosexuals: that's a different kind of discrimination, they claim. It's based on moral beliefs, they argue -- as have, of course, centuries' worth of other haters, both racial and religious.

What all these stories sadly underscore is something we often forget: hate is no respecter of boundaries. It comes in all shapes and colors. Once the poison of xenophobic hatred contaminates the community well, it crosses those boundaries in ways that cannot be predicted, except for their inevitably awful outcomes.

It's always worth remembering that the chief practitioners of this kind of hatred for most of the history of this country have been white Christians. But the truth is that racial, ethnic, and religious hatred have been with us for most of the history of mankind. Hate begets hate begets hate. Who knows where it started?

All we do know is that, if we want it to stop, we need to break the cycle of hate. If we want it to end it, we have to end it now.

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