Yesterday, an Oregon State University student was convicted of placing racist stickers on cars outside a meeting of anti-racist activities. A Seattle man tried to run over two men outside a Los Angeles synagogue. And – closer to home – a Croatian friend of mine who has been in the United States for over 20 years was spit on at a gas station by a stranger and told to go back to his own country.
There were 1000 more hate crimes in the United States last year than in 2016, most of them targeted a person and involved intimidation or assault. In Canada, between 2016 and 2017, hate crimes jumped by 47%. So, what in the hell is going on?
“What Kind of Sicko Would Do Something Like That?”
I’ve been asked that question more than once. When violence is directed towards an innocent stranger whose only “crime” is being different from the perpetrator, our first thought is that there must be a screw loose in anyone who would do such a thing. They must be mentally ill, we think, because anyone in their right mind would never do something like that.
The reality is that it’s not that simple. Yes, there is the extremely rare messianic murderer like Robert Lewis Dear, Jr., the admitted Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter who killed three people on November 27, 2015. In addition, to Mr. Dear’s delusional conviction that a higher power is directing him to save unborn children, he believes the FBI has been tracking him, that President Obama is the Antichrist and the federal government has been targeting Christians since the 1993 siege on the Branch Davidians in Waco. Since his arrest, he’s been so delusional that his lawyers aren’t even able to get him to participate in his own court proceedings.
That’s not Dylann Roof or Robert Bowers or the stranger who recently spit on my Croatian friend at a gas station and told him to go back to his own country. The vast majority of hate crime perpetrators share things in common but mental illness isn’t one of them.
Here’s what they do:
* a troubled past with a much-higher-than-average childhood abuse history
* early exposure to extreme views of superiority and nationalism
* a lot of unmet needs for a sense of connection, identity, and belonging
* a chronic sense of anger and resentment
In other words, hate crimes come from people with maladaptive personalities, not mental illness. They are lonely, angry, often-traumatized individuals who develop hateful beliefs that allows them to feel a sense of control, superiority and community with like-minded losers. Most hate crime perpetrators, I believe, don’t start out with a hateful ideology and look for a group of people like them. They start out looking for a group of people with similar personalities and become more and more extreme as they shape and mold their identities to support the norms of the group. A loner with a pre-existing chip on his shoulder finds comfort in a group that tells him he is, in fact, superior to, and a victim of, a certain race, religion, gender identity, etc. They are the ones to blame for all his undeserved misfortune.
Don’t Blame Mental Illness
Aside from the fact that it’s not true, there are other reasons why we shouldn’t look to mental illness to explain hate crimes:
1. It doesn’t help us identify the perpetrators. We all have problems. At any given time, about 1 out of 5 people in the United States is experiencing a diagnosable mental illness; over a lifetime, about half of us will experience some kind of mental health concern. It’s something a lot of us have in common, not a rare disease that will suddenly erupt in violence.
2. Hate is not a symptom of a mental illness. It is a human emotion that can be fueled by many things – fear, hurt, blame, jealousy, envy, or shame. At its core, it’s an emotion that protects us from feeling weak, hurt or bad and, by blaming someone else, temporarily restores a sense of control and righteousness.
3. Blaming mental illness fuels another kind of hate. One of the greatest barriers to mental health treatment in this country is the stigma many struggling individuals feel about getting help. No one wants to have a mental illness and too many of us are afraid to talk about it if we do. Consistently and unfairly linking violence to mental illness perpetuates the stigma that people with mental illness are dangerous, unpredictable, “crazy” and certainly not like “we” are. Not surprisingly, people diagnosed with mental illnesses are themselves victims of hate crimes; the Southern Poverty Law Center has detailed cases of horrific hate crimes committed against people with psychiatric histories, such the torture and murder of Jennifer Daugherty in Pennsylvania.
Hate crimes are rarely committed by people with mental illness; they are most often committed by angry, isolated people who are looking for somewhere to belong and someone to blame. And sometimes even the most hardened extremist finds his way back into the light. As this
of former violent extremists shows, there can be love after hate.