July 28, 2008

UU Church Shooting in Tennessee: The Gunman Wore Red, White and Blue

The news that a man shot up a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tennessee has already circled the globe. It's an unthinkable horror; kids were performing the musical Annie when Jim Adkisson, a "nice, quiet guy" from Powell, walked in, removed a shotgun from a guitar case and opened fire. Two victims have died and others remain in critical condition. Adkisson has been arrested; a motive for the shooting hasn't been released to the public yet. Whatever it turns out to be, it won't be a good one. However one feels about a given religion, about politics, or anything else, blasting away with firearms is never justified.

As UU churches tend to be, the Tennessee Valley UU Church is a liberal, good-hearted institution. The group of people targeted by Adkisson is part of a half century-long heritage of inclusiveness. They are noted for their support of equality for all, from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's to the gay rights movement of the present day. In fact, they had a banner welcoming gay people hanging over their door when Adkisson decided to turn a musical performance by young people into his personal shooting gallery. There's some speculation that this may have been the reason he did what he did, though this hasn't yet been confirmed.

Whether Unitarian Universalism as it exists today is a Christian religion is open to debate. Its inclusiveness extends to all sorts of religious views, even those that aren't biblical whatsoever. It might be worth noting that even secular humanists are welcomed into the exchange of ideas that the group fosters. Here in Worcester, for instance, the Greater Worcester Humanists' monthly meetings are hosted at a Unitarian Universalist church. It has been brought up that Adkisson didn't like Christianity much, but considering how many strictly (and fundamentally) Christian churches there are in his area, I don't have a reason to believe that this would have been his motive. An article in the Knoxville News Sentinel talks a bit about what one of Adkisson's neighbors knew about him and his views on religion:

Suspect 'was a very nice guy'
By J.J. Stambaugh

..."I feel sick to my stomach," said Karen Massey, a friend of Adkisson's...

"He almost turned angry," she said. "He seemed to get angry at that. He said that everything in the Bible contradicts itself if you read it.

"I was shocked that he had feelings like that, because I don't have the same beliefs. I believe in the King James Bible, I believe it literally. … He had his own sense of belief about religion; that's the impression I got of him."

According to Massey, Adkisson talked frequently about his parents, who "made him go to church all his life. … He acted like he was forced to do that..."
Jim Adkisson, if this description is true, was neither a religious fundamentalist nor an atheist but, like many Americans, had his own ideas about religion. What they were may become clearer as time goes on. Whether those religious views contributed to his actions remains to be seen.

On the other hand, we do have something that might give us a clue that comes from a description of the shooting itself:
...[Eyewitness Barbara] Kemper said the gunman walked into the side of the sanctuary after firing one shot from a hallway.

She said the gunman was yelling "hateful things" and was wearing a red, white and blue T-shirt...


So far, nobody has made a statement as to the specific "hateful things" Adkisson shouted. His choice of attire for his rampage may tell us a little something, though. It could be coincidence that he wore red, white and blue, but if this was indeed a "statement" killing as it seems to have been (he had no personal connection to the church), it seems likely that his clothing was part of the statement he was making. I suspect that we will soon find out that Adkisson harbored conservative, probably extremist, views and that his murderous attack on the church was prompted by them.

This is, of course, speculation on my part. When we humans are confronted by tragedy and horror, it is in our nature to search for a reason. For good or ill, this behavior is a root of religion itself as much as it is of investigative disciplines like the sciences. An explanation of some kind gives us a sense of security, a hope that we can recognize the coming of an event before it happens and that we can prevent a thing like this from recurring. My personal hope, the basis of my own speculation, is that something may be learned from this otherwise senseless act of brutality that might prevent another such act. It is a slim hope, but it would at least lend some sort of purpose to the loss that has been suffered by all of the victims of this latest atrocity, both those who died and those who, having survived even without a scratch, now must find a way to cope with it.

Update at 8:05 AM: The Knoxville News Sentinel is now reporting that police have recovered a written manifesto from Jim Adkisson's car:
Police apparently found a multi-page, handwritten letter in the vehicle of the shotgun-wielding suspect charged in Sunday's mass shooting during a children's play at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.

The letter apparently offers some clues about accused shooter Jim D. Adkisson's motive for targeting the church's congregation, although specifics were not immediately available...


That Adkisson brought a copy of his manifesto with him to his rampage lends weight to the idea that this wasn't some random act of violence. There's a reason in that manifesto that the gunman wore red, white and blue, I'm sure. We'll be finding out what it was soon enough.

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