Plumbing the Depths: Were the Umpqua Shootings an Anti-Christian Hate Crime?

  • October 23, 2015

On October 1, 26-year-old student Christopher Harper-Mercer walked into a classroom at Umpqua Community College in southwest Oregon and opened fire, killing nine people and wounding another nine before killing himself after law enforcement arrived and wounded him.

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In the weeks since the shooting, Harper-Mercer’s motivation has remained largely a mystery, the subject of speculation and allegations, thanks to the limited, often ambiguous information available on the shooter.

The issue most often raised about the shootings is whether they constitute an anti-Christian or anti-religious hate crime.  Proponents of this theory note that Harper-Mercer asked several of his victims about their religion before shooting them, and that his limited on-line footprint suggests a disdain for organized religion.  On the other hand, it turns out, Harper-Mercer was angry about a great many things, some clearly more so than religion.  He also had a history of mental health and behavioral issues.

What motivated the shooter?  It seems possible that a clear-cut answer will never emerge.  But an analysis of what is known so far about Harper-Mercer and the shootings may offer a slightly clearer picture of what happened that day—and why.

Acquaintances of Harper-Mercer interviewed since the shooting have not revealed much about his attitudes towards religion.  But on an on-line dating profile, Harper-Mercer chose the options “not religious” and “not religious but spiritual” to describe himself.  As a prospective match, he sought someone pagan, Wiccan, or “not religious, but spiritual.”  On the same site, he joined groups called “doesn’t like organized religion,” “magick and occult,” and the “left-hand path,” another occult reference.  However, to date no on-line anti-Christian or anti-religious rhetoric by Harper-Mercer has been discovered.

According to the accounts of witnesses, on the day of the shooting itself, Harper-Mercer walked late into his writing class and fired a gun, apparently to get people’s attention.  He fatally shot the instructor, Lawrence Levine, after telling him, according to the account of one witness, “I’ve been waiting to do this for a really long time.”

Harper-Mercer than ordered the 15 or so students onto the floor.  According to one survivor, Mathew Downing, he “fired a couple of shots into the crowd of students in the center.”  He subsequently ordered several students to stand, one at a time, and asked about their religion, then shot them.  For example, the mother of one victim told reporters that Harper-Mercer asked her daughter, Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, about her religion, shooting her in the back when she didn’t answer.

The sister of one Umpqua student told NBC News shortly after the attack that Harper-Mercer asked his potential victims if they were Christian.  If they said yes, he would shoot them in the head.  However, if they said something else, or nothing, “they were shot elsewhere in the body, usually the leg.”  This statement was widely repeated on the Internet.  However, the student, J. J. Vicari, was not actually in the shooter’s classroom at the time, but in another classroom in that building.  When NBC subsequently interviewed Vicari himself, he said that he never heard Harper-Mercer ask about religion—or even heard his voice at all.

The most frequently-repeated account came from the father of victim Anastasia Boylan.  Her father told the media that Harper-Mercer asked people if they were Christian, then said “Good, because you’re a Christian, you’re going to see God in just about one second,” killing people who had identified themselves as Christians.

However, when Anastasia Boylan herself was subsequently interviewed by Good Morning America, her account was different:  “He had us get up, one by one, and asked us what our religions were.  The shooter said [victims] would only feel pain for a couple of seconds, and that [they] would be with God soon.  And then he shot them.”  Boylan’s description makes it seem as if Harper-Mercer was actually engaging in some sort of bizarre attempt to calm or give solace to the people he was about to murder.  He also told the students he would be joining them in death in just a little while.

Other surviving witnesses also questioned whether Harper-Mercer was “targeting Christians.” Rand McGowan said, “He didn’t, really, honestly…Obviously, he was asking what religion, but he wasn’t really just targeting.  He was kind of just saying, ‘Oh, since you have a God, you’ll be joining him in a little bit.’  It wasn’t really like, ‘I’m targeting you and I’m going to kill you.’”

Tracy Heu, another survivor, recalled that Harper-Mercer told victims, “I’m going to send you to God.  You’re going to see God.”  However, she did not think that Christianity or religion were a motive, noting that he shot people regardless of how they responded to his question about religion.

It is not clear how many students Harper-Mercer asked about their religion.  However, it is clear from Downing’s detailed written account that a number of students were shot or shot at without having been asked anything about their religion.

Harper-Mercer killed or wounded most of the students in the classroom (shooting one victim at least five times), regardless of faith.  However, one student he spared, giving him an envelope for police that allegedly included a flash drive and documents, including what has been described as a “manifesto.”

Weeks after the shootings, authorities still have not yet released any of the contents of this envelope.  However, officers or others with apparent access have leaked descriptions and excerpts of its contents to the media.  The document allegedly contains racist language, though race does not seem to have been a motive for the attack (and Harper-Mercer was from a multi-racial family).  It also allegedly contains language about his sexual frustrations—which echoes comments Harper-Mercer made on-line prior to the shootings.  One anonymous source told People Magazine that the shooter wrote, “I am going to die friendless, girlfriendless, and a virgin.”  The source also said that the manifesto had “666” written on it and that Harper-Mercer wanted “to serve darkness”—characterizing the attack as “strictly for Satanic purposes.”

However, in a subsequent People article, an apparently different anonymous source allegedly read parts of the manifesto to reporters, telling the magazine that the manifesto chronicled Harper-Mercer’s life and his frustrations:  “no job, no life, no success.”  According to this source, Harper-Mercer allegedly wrote, “I was hated ever since I arrived in the world.  I was always under attack.  I’ve always been the most hated person in the world.”

Harper-Mercer allegedly wrote in the manifesto about previous mass killers (as he did on-line, prior to the attack), claiming that they too had been denied everything they deserved and wanted.  This source quotes Harper-Mercer making references about demons and Hell, though the references sound as though they may have been more metaphorical than actually Satanic.  However, without being able to see the actual language in its true context, it is hard to know for sure.

So was Harper-Mercer’s deadly attack a hate crime?  Certainly, Harper-Mercer was capable of hatred.  The evidence suggests that he was a supremely disturbed and alienated young man, frustrated by virtually all aspects of his life, from being kicked out of the military, to being placed on academic probation, to being unable to form connections with other people, especially women.

Hate and resentment, Harper-Mercer thus had in full measure. But anger alone does not define a hate crime.  Was his attack directed against Christians or against people with religious beliefs?  The evidence that has so far emerged to support such a proposition is not very strong.  Harper-Mercer appears to have stored up anger against society in general—and when he unleashed his deadly fury, he spared neither Christian nor non-Christian, neither the religious nor the agnostic.

It may well have been the act of shooting and killing people, rather than shooting anyone in particular, that was most important to Harper-Mercer.  And while new information could prompt a re-examination of the entire event, it seems quite possible that profound alienation and resentment, rather than animus directed specifically at Christians or the religious, was the most important motivation in Harper-Mercer’s murderous rampage.

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