This Tuesday marks the anniversary of the attacks on the Youth with a Mission dormitory (not three miles from my Arvada home) and New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Had Matthew Murray not been stopped by a security guard’s bullet, the number of victims slain could have reached the double digits.
Some of us went to church that Sunday evening wondering if the violence was over. “Could an unknown accomplice of the shooter be prepared to add Christian blood to Christian worship?” we thought to ourselves.
In the attacks’ aftermath, the killer’s self-pitying laments and his and Christian-hating rants posted to the internet attracted considerable media attention.
The media narrative soon focused upon his strict upbringing, too often granting prima facie credibility to Murray’s self-serving claims to have been warped in childhood by his Pentecostal parents.
A former roommate’s comments also helped media dismiss the gunman as mentally disturbed.
Last December I intuited that Murray’s reported claim to hear voices was meant to entertain himself and shock his peers. Reports that he claimed to have committed a sexual assault for “shock value” only confirm me in that opinion.
For those of us unable to ignore the attack as a mere psychological eruption, Murray’s own words linger.
“You Christians brought this on yourselves!” read one of his messages posted between attacks. Another declared “Christian America… this is YOUR Columbine!”
There is no question of his malice, and there is no question about whom it targets.
Thus it is disturbing to discover that Murray’s crimes were never classified as hate crimes in the reports of both the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the FBI. This despite the FBI’s definition of a hate crime as one that is motivated “in whole or in part” by bias against a religion or other protected categories.
Catholic News Agency quotes a sergeant at the Colorado Springs Police Department who said “I think that the general feeling [at the department] was that it was not so much bias but retaliation.”
It is easy to criticize police officials for not checking the right boxes on a report after they’ve explored the mind of an aspiring mass murderer. However, had an ex-Muslim shot up a mosque while ranting about the evils of Islam, it is hard to believe his murders would not be classified as hate crimes.
In my view, hate crimes should not stand in their own legal category. Difficulties in establishing motive are obvious, while any necessary penalties may be assessed in sentencing based upon prosecutorial or judicial discretion.
But state and national statistics concerning bias crimes are used to understand good and bad trends in society. If we must have such statistics, we should at least insist they be minimally consistent. That’s the whole purpose of the FBI’s Unified Crime Report.
Minority groups such as Jews are understandably very vigilant about bias crimes. This vigilance is perhaps not shared by people from more popular denominations, who are more likely to dismiss various crimes as outliers rather than consider them a portent of something worse.
Local officers too might think with such habits. Are bias crimes against well-populated religious denominations more likely to be underreported because they are not “vulnerable” minorities? That’s a story in itself.
New Life Church has a national profile, but that doesn’t render it impervious to hate crimes. In fact, the prominence and the criminal antics of its disgraced former pastor Ted Haggard probably made the attacks more likely.
But Haggard should not distract us from those who died.
Murray attacked strangers who had nothing more than a religious affiliation in common. If Murray’s murders do not qualify as hate crimes, it is hard for the lay observer to say what would.