Saturday, September 1, 2012

Oak Creek Massacre: Trying to Understand Hate Crime (Hum Magazine, September 2012)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines hate crime (also known as bias crime) as “a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin.” While we will never know the motivation behind Wade Michael Page’s rampage at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc. last month, through his affiliation with white supremacist organizations and claims by his friends that he talked about an impending “racial holy war” it stands to reason that his offense was motivated by hate.

As a mental health provider I am curious about what motivates people to commit such atrocities. I find the word “hate” to be too generalizing to precisely identify the motivations for these crimes. Fortunately, some social justice literature has been generated on this topic to help parse this word out. In a 2002 study, McDevitt et al. suggested that hate crime offenders can be grouped by four motivations: thrill seekers (66%), offenders who view themselves as defending their turf (25%), those responding to a real or perceived hate crime (8%) and a small group of offenders whose life’s mission is to rid the world of groups they consider evil or inferior (1%). Their investigation using data from the Boston Police Department suggests that the most common type of hate crime was one where an attack was committed for the thrill or excitement experienced by the offender. According to McDevitt et al., “In 91 percent of these thrill-motivated cases, the perpetrators reported having left their own neighborhood to search for a victim in a gay bar, a temple in another part of town, or a minority neighborhood. The target was chosen because the offender perceived that the victim was in some way significantly different from the offender.”

The issue of “difference” plays prominently in the Wisconsin murders. If Page had attacked worshipers at a mosque, a link to the events of September 11th, 2001 might have been more comprehensible, although no less tolerable. Instead, he elected to attack non-Muslim Indian-Americans on a seemingly random day. This appears to be less likely an act of retribution against a certain group but rather against people who simply fit an perceived image of terrorism. While it may be appealing to explain the motivation for these crimes as a case of mistaken identity, in a recent piece for The Washington Post, Valarie Kaur and Simran Jeet Singh lucidly explain the pitfalls of such a hypothesis: “The notion of ‘mistaken identity’ is not just wrong, it’s dangerous. In the initial aftermath of 9/11, Sikhs told the media, ‘Sikhs are not Muslims.’ Our community quickly realized its mistake, and made a commitment to express solidarity with Muslims. Although we are distinct religious communities, we have shared in the experience of hate violence, religious bigotry, and racial profiling.”

While the issue of difference motivating Page frightens me very much, I find myself even more afraid of the “thrill-seeking” element of hate crimes as noted in the research by McDevitt et al. While psychiatric interventions would have likely been employed with Mr. Page had he survived, I see this as a second-best solution by virtue of it being after the event. Fundamentally, we as Americans must confront the fact that so many find a “thrill” in violence against a nameless, shapeless “other.” As a clinician I feel at a loss as to what effective measures can be taken. Certainly issues of bias begin early in life suggesting the value of an education that emphasizes tolerance. Also, a heavier emphasis on psychiatric evaluation in routine medical care could help to identify and help those at risk for such thrill-seeking violent behavior. Further research in this area, particularly in light of recent events, is merited. Until a clearer management strategy is developed, the best we can do is to support those who have been psychologically traumatized by these incidents and mourn those who we have lost.


Kaur, V. and Singh, S.J. (2012, August 10). Two Sikh Americans: Let’s retire ‘mistaken identity.’ The Washington Post. Retrieved from

McDevitt, J., Levin, J., and Bennett, S. (2002). "Hate Crime Offenders: An Expanded Typology (abstract)." Journal of Social Issues 58(2): 303–317, NCJ 204396. Retrieved from