Monday, July 31, 2006

When hate hits home

[Seattle Times photo by Ellen M. Banner]

Horrifying moments like Friday's shooting rampage at the Jewish Federation in downtown Seattle always leave communities stunned and shaken, and ours is no different right now.

But these moments also present special opportunities -- particularly the opportunity to transcend the virulent hatred that motivates killers like Naveed Afzal Haq. Consider what took place at the scene:
Haq, he said, had hidden behind plants in the foyer of the Jewish Federation. When a young teenager, aged 13 or 14, came into the building he said, Haq took her hostage and forced her to go inside.

There, Haq opened fire with two semi-automatic handguns, one a .40-caliber and the other a .45-caliber weapon.

"He said, 'I am a Muslim American, angry at Israel,' before opening fire on everyone," Marla Meislin-Dietrich, a database coordinator for the center, told reporters on Friday. "He was randomly shooting at everyone."

Kerlikowske said today that Haq ordered the employees not to call 911 while he continued shooting, wounding Dayna Klein, a pregnant woman, in the arm. He said Klein had protected her womb with her arm. She fell to the floor after she was shot, but managed to crawl back to her office and call police.

The Seattle police chief called her one of the heroes of the day.

Klein was still on the phone with the 911 operator when Haq came into her office, again demanding she stop calling police. Instead, she convinced Haq to talk to the 911 operator.

Dayna Klein, as Robert Jamieson adroitly points out, was a hero twice: first for shielding her unborn child from the bullet that shattered her arm, and next for ignoring the warnings from the gunman and calling 911.

Even more remarkably, her doing so managed to help defuse the situation, because it put the gunman in contact with dispatchers who talked him out of shooting any other people:
Their professionalism helped ease the gunman's rage after he told them he was holding a pregnant woman, and had a gun pointed at her head.

"I shot her once. I shot her in the arm," he tells the operators, according to a police statement in a court document.

An operator says Klein might need an ambulance. The gunman replies: "I don't care."

Eventually he says: "I'll give myself up ... I'll put my gun down."

He set down his weapon. He walked out of the building. Seattle police officers were waiting for him.

It was a remarkable moment, partly because it illustrated both the universal dynamic at play in scenes like this, as well as how we might best confront them. Enraged killers like Haq, as they're stalking their victims, are people who have managed to completely objectify and dehumanize their targets, so that they are no longer people but mere things -- and in the process, they become insanely inhuman themselves. What Dayna Klein and the two dispatchers managed, almost miraculously, was to touch some small remaining part of Haq that was still human.

Scenes like these always create long, abiding waves of sorrow that ripple through the community. The first is for the immediate victims:
Six women were shot, including 58-year-old Seattle resident Pamela Waechter, who died from her injuries. Other victims were:

• Klein, 37, of Seattle, who was in satisfactory condition early Saturday at Harborview Medical Center with a gunshot wound to her arm.

• Cheryl Stumbo, 43, of Seattle, who was in serious condition at Harborview.

• Carol Goldman, 35, of Seattle, who was shot in the knee. She was in satisfactory condition.

• Layla Bush, 23, of Seattle, who was in serious condition.

• Christina Rexroad, 29, of Everett, who was wounded in the abdomen. She was in serious condition.

The larger target of Haq's attack -- the Jewish community -- is the next focus of concern, especially because this is nothing new for them. Sadly, there is a long history of lethal maniacs making scapegoats out of Jewish people, globally, nationally, and locally.

Haq selected his victims specifically because they were Jews, and that makes this act clearly a hate crime. As I explained in Death on the Fourth of July:
Hate crimes attack not only the immediate victim, but the target community -- Jews, blacks, gays—to which the victim belongs. Their purpose today, just as it was in the lynching era, is to terrorize and politically oppress the target community.

In this sense, questions about whether this was an act of "terror" seem beside the point: as I've explained in more detail, hate crimes indeed are a kind of terrorism. Specifically, this terrorism is the kind inflicted by our fellow citizens in an attempt to intimidate and deprive others of their fundamental civil rights. (For more on hate crimes and the laws against them, see here and here.)

However, there are some special considerations that complicate the picture in this case. It was not a "reactive" hate crime (the most common kind) in which a member of the majority community lashes out violently -- rather, it was the rarest kind, a "mission" crime in which an unstable, usually psychopathic personality carries out a personal program to rid the world of a perceived evil.

This becomes clearer as details about Haq's past emerge -- especially the fact that he appears to have swung between Christianity and Islam in recent years:
Yet Haq was frustrated at his lack of friends and female companionship. He told friends he felt alienated from his own family, in part because his career had disappointed his father and also because he had disavowed Islam last year, converting to Christianity.

Haq had begun studying the Bible, attending weekly men's spiritual group meetings, only to stop coming a few months after his baptism.

He had told the group's leader that he seen too much anger in Islam and that he wanted to find a new beginning in Christianity.

Yet in the midst of his shooting spree in Seattle Friday, he declared himself an angry Muslim.

It seems that Haq has had a variety of mental-health issues in the past decade:
Montelongo said Haq seemed depressed by the tension that had grown between he and his family. And he said Haq talked about suffering from bi-polar disorder. But that he seemed to improve in how he coped with what Montelongo described as his own anger.

And then there was this:
In March, Haq was arrested for lewd conduct at a Tri-Cities mall. It was Ullah he called to bail him out of jail, because he was too embarrassed to call his own family, Ullah said.

Haq, it appears, had been receiving mental-health counseling afterwards, but then dropped out -- and then reappeared in Seattle.

Seattle has a history of dealing with tragedies like these -- especially in which the Jewish community is targeted by a mentally unstable person who has bought into the dogma of anti-Semitic hatemongers. The most notorious of these was the 1985 murders of the David Goldmark family by David Lewis Rice, who had decided he was going to singlehandedly eliminate the "top communist" and "top Jew" in Washington -- even though Goldmark was neither. (The Goldmark family had long been politically active progressives; Goldmark's brother Peter, incidentally, is currently running for Congress as a Democrat in eastern Washington's 2nd District.)

The Friday shootings also echoed the 2000 rampage of Buford Furrow at a Los Angeles Jewish day-care center. Furrow, you'll recall, was a white supremacist from Washington state who'd been undergoing mental-health treatment in the Seattle area for several years.

The city, in fact, is still reeling from the more recent killing rampage by a young man from Montana named Kyle Huff, who gunned down six ravers in the early-morning hours after a rave because he hated ravers and "this world of sex that they are striving to make," telling his brother in a letter that he wanted to "kill this hippie shit."

The Huff massacre was not a classic hate crime, because these typically involve prejudice against race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, while Huff's hostility was almost purely cultural. But if we see more of this trend, it may be time to rethink that.

What all of these incidents have in common is the mental instability of the actors; and I've explored previously how that affects the way society and the law must deal with the perpetrators. In the case of Buford Furrow, for instance, his mental illness became a mitigating factor in his eventual sentence, as prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty in large part because of it.

Marking off rampages like Furrow's, Huff's, and Haq's as "isolated events" caused by mental illness is a cop-out, however. Because, as the case of David Lewis Rice made all too clear, these mentally unstable types are almost always stirred up and driven to their insane acts by haters of various stripes, the kind whose voices seem each day to be growing louder in our public discourse. These cultural vampires have developed a real knack for inspiring mentally unstable people into horrific acts of violence.

Who did this in the case of Naveed Afzal Haq is still unknown. Certainly there is no shortage of anti-Semitism lurking among certain factions of Islam, and this may have been his inspiration. But it also lurks among certain corners of Christianity as well, and if these were among the "Christians" to whom Haq was exposed, then the source of his motivation may well have been some of the same far-right influences that were responsible for these previous cases.

Regardless of the source of the hate, there remains, in the face of it, only one appropriate response: the community must stand up and, contrary to the desires of the rampaging madmen and haters, build bridges where they hoped to burn them down.

As with all hate crimes, this kind of effort is absolutely essential for the healing process to begin:
Well, it's true that community responses against emanations of racial hate -- particularly hate crimes -- often take on the trappings of Liberal Chic and its attendant self-righteousness. But it's important to understand that in the case of hate crimes, these kinds of demonstrations play an essential role in curbing the crimes. They have real practical value, which is why you'll see them attract support not merely from civil-rights groups and liberal churches, but also from law enforcement and city officials.

The vast majority of hate-crime perpetrators, as I explain in Death on the Fourth of July, believe fully that they are committing these crimes with the unspoken approval of their respective community -- that they are merely acting on its real desires. This (combined with a high incidence of narcissistic/antisocial personality disorders) lends itself to another common trait of hate criminals: they rarely believe they've done anything wrong. And it's important to note that these perps consistently held these views well before they ever acted upon them.

Thus, high-profile and widely sanctioned expressions of community disapproval of these crimes play an essential role in discouraging further such acts. They inform any would-be hate criminals that, contrary to their preconceived notions, the community at large clearly does not approve of these kinds of acts, and rather than being community heroes, they will be pariahs.

In the case of Naveed Afzal Haq, it's clear that he believed he was acting particularly on the "unstated wishes" of the Muslim American community. And this weekend, the Seattle Muslim community stood up en masse and repudiated his horrific act. Muslim leaders were all over local television, mourning the victims and condemning the violence; local Muslims paid visits to Jewish centers to pay their condolences to reach out to them as human beings. The Muslim community also issued a statement:
We categorically condemn this and any similar acts of violence. We pray for the safety and health of those injured and offer our heartfelt condolences to the family of the victims of this attack. We also hope that the perpetrator of this crime is brought to justice.

There is no room for such acts of violence in our city and community. When one of us is attacked, none of us are safe. We refuse to see the violence in the Middle East spill over to our cities and neighborhoods.

We reject and categorically condemn any attacks against the Jewish community and stand in solidarity with the Jewish Federation in this tragedy.

This is an admirable start, and precisely the kind of bridge-building that incidents like this can inspire, amid the sorrow and pain. What's needed, as well, is for the entire community to stand up and repudiate this act, and all hate crimes, for exactly the same reason: The louder that voices of hate speak and inspire acts of hate, the more we will stand up and repudiate them, because they poison and destroy our human community.

When we do this, we not only blunt their hate, but there is also the chance that we can defuse it, as Dayna Klein managed to do last Friday. Because when we stand up for what is human in all of us, there is a chance, however small, that we can even touch the vestiges of humanity that lie buried beneath the layers of hate in people like Naveed Afzal Haq, before they ever act.

No comments: