Hate Crimes Update—Killing “Liberal Vermin” in Tennessee

Last July there was a brief splash of media attention on the town where I live—Knoxville, Tennessee—because a local man named Jim David Adkisson walked into the Sunday worship of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC), which on this day featured a play performed by its children. He opened fire, killing two people and wounding several more. He told police that he did this because he “wanted to kill liberals,” and the TVUUC had a reputation as one of Knoxville’s key gathering places for people who are liberal either in a theological or political sense.

In the past week the story has returned to the news here in Knoxville, and—since the national media has not picked up the story, at least as I write on February 10—it may be useful to update readers of RD. Yesterday Adkisson appeared in Knox County Criminal Court. His lawyers had arranged for him to plead insanity, but he chose to plead guilty to murder. The deal includes him serving a life sentence without parole. The overall impression is a complete lack of remorse—almost a continuing pride—in what he did.

Especially noteworthy is that Adkisson released to the Knoxville News-Sentinel the full text of a four page handwritten letter—variously described as his suicide note or manifesto. In the past the police had talked about it only in general terms. This document (available here) is sobering reading.

It has four parts. The first begins with Adkisson talking about his frustration at being unemployed, but quickly turns to fairly standard “hate-radio” rhetoric against liberal Democrats, such as one might hear from Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. (Police reported earlier that they found Savage’s book Liberalism is a Mental Health Disorder in his apartment.) A sample: “[Democrats] are all a bunch of traitors…Liberals have attacked every major institution that made America great.” Also: “I’ve always wondered why I was put on the earth….lately I’ve been feeling helpless in our war on terrorism. But I realized I could engage the terrorists’ allies here in America. The best allies they’ve got.”

A second section turns to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist church, which Adkisson describes as a “cult” that “worships the God of Secularism” and a “den of un-American vipers.” He accuses the church of elitism and hypocrisy (as when it accepts “perverts” but hates conservatives) and asks “how is a white woman having a niger [sic.] baby progress?” This section ends with the words “environmental nuts have to be stopped.”

Next comes a page entitled “Know This if Nothing Else,” with three bullet points: First, “This was a hate Crime” and second, “This was a Political Protest.” Here he returns to a sweeping attack on Democrats in Washington, including “liberal Supreme Court Justices” and “Osama Hussein Obama”—a “radical leftist” who “looks like Curious George.” Finally, “This was a Symbolic Killing.” Adkisson states that “I wanted to kill every Democrat in the Senate” and other such places, as well as “everyone in the Mainstream Media”—but since “I couldn’t get to the generals and high ranking officers…so I went after the foot soldiers, the chickenshit liberals that vote in these traitorous people.”

Even after all this, Adkisson’s final section is easily the most disturbing, and I recommend reading it in the context of books like Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? or Joe Bageant’s more recent book Deer Hunting With Jesus—books which analyze not solely the discourse of hatred and blame in a mindset like Adkisson’s, but also the sources of despair and rage that help to fuel it before it is channeled into hatred. Adkisson concludes as follows.

No one gets out of this world alive so I’ve chosen to skip the bad years of poverty. I know my life is going downhill fast…So I thought I’d do something good for this Country and kill Democrats ‘til the cops kill me…Liberals are a pest like termites… the only way we can rid ourselves of this evil is kill them in the streets…I’d like to encourage other like-minded people to do what I’ve done. If life ain’t worth living anymore, don’t just kill yourself… kill liberals. Tell the cop that killed me that I said, ‘Thanks, I needed that.’

I understand why the Knoxville police have largely tried to soft-pedal this sort of rhetoric and why Adkisson’s decision to release it to the press could, in certain contexts at least, do more harm than good. But now it has been released, and (one guesses) may soon be circulating more widely. Thus it is time to look at it squarely and soberly– both the pain and despair (and apparently sincere patriotism) underlying the manifesto, as well as its sensationally hateful, twisted, and violent ideas. It is time for people from across the political spectrum—not only liberals but also sincere people on the right, as well as people in the mainstream media who too-often enable the far right– to use today’s news as a wake-up call. Discourses that demonize “liberalism” and/or treat such demonizing as a harmless joke (as when Ann Coulter called for terrorists to bomb the New York Times building) seem even less funny today than they did yesterday.

mhulseth@utk.edu'

Mark Hulsether is Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at the University of Tennessee and the father of Lucia Hulsether. His most recent book is Religion, Culture and Politics in the Twentieth Century United States (Columbia University Press, 2007).