Cleaveland: Hate speech triggers hate crimes

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Thirty-two year old Srinivas Kuchibhotla traveled to America from his native India to earn a master's degree in aviation engineering at the University of Texas-El Paso.

He married following a six-year courtship and moved to Olanthe, Kan., to work at Garmin, a multinational technology company. The couple purchased a house and planned to start a family.

photo Dr. Clif Cleaveland

Each week, he and his closest friend and co-worker, Alok Madasmi, also a native of India, marked the end of a day of work by visiting a bar to enjoy a drink and televised sports. They were also teammates on a cricket team in Kansas City. Cricket is followed in India with the passion of baseball in the U.S.

Aware of a rising tide of anti-immigrant rhetoric, Kuchibhotla's spouse and relatives in India recently urged him to consider returning to his native land. He chose not to leave "the country he loved."

On Feb. 22, while relaxing in their customary bar, the two friends were confronted by a man who shouted racial slurs and told them to "get out of my country." A bystander, Ian Grillot, tried to intervene to defuse the situation. The intruder departed, then returned with a gun. All three men were shot, Kuchibhotla fatally.

The shooter fled, traveling to a bar in Missouri where he bragged to the bartender that he had just killed two men from the Middle East. The bartender notified police, who arrested the assailant, charging him with first-degree murder. Agents from the FBI joined police from Olanthe to determine if the shooting represented a hate crime.

Can there be any doubt?

Over the President's Day weekend, vandals toppled or damaged more than 150 headstones in a Jewish cemetery in University City, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. The desecration followed multiple recent threats to Jewish and Muslim institutions in other cities. There were 16 such bomb threats on Monday, Feb. 27.

Recently relocated Syrian refugees joined in the effort to restore the Jewish cemetery in Missouri. Two Muslim groups contributed funds to the restoration. Anti-immigrant rhetoric bears much of the blame for these crimes. Unstable persons and individuals whose lives are dominated by hatred are tipped into violence by the repeated proclamations of round-ups of immigrants alleged to be criminals or potential terrorists. All immigrants, however long they have lived in America, become potential targets. Anyone who appears in any way different from some hypothetical, white, native-born Christian may become a victim.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, headquartered in Montgomery, Ala., reports that the number of hate groups in America increased in 2016 for the second year in a row, reaching 917. Tennessee contains 38 such groups; Georgia 32; Alabama 27. Kansas contains seven.

The hate groups include various offshoots of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi and white-supremacy organizations, anti-Muslim groups and anti-LGBT groups. Some hate groups claim religious affiliations.

Perpetrators of hate crimes do not necessarily belong to a distinct hate group. Their thoughts and subsequent actions may, however, be influenced by the venom the groups endorse and spread.

Anti-immigrant outbursts by political leaders throw gasoline on the persistent embers of racial and religious intolerance which our nation has never been able to extinguish. Starting with President Trump, these officials must articulate repeatedly a new message on the fundamental worth and dignity of every American, whether newly arrived or a long-time resident, whatever his or her religious, ethnic or racial heritage, country of origin or sexual orientation.

As for the rest of us, we must move beyond the notion of tolerance to one of engagement and appreciation. Each of us has 23 pairs of chromosomes whose constituent DNA is identical save for minor variations. We are of the same genus and species: Homo sapiens. What if we could someday claim a new genus and species: Homo diliget where diliget translates as "loving" or "caring."

The time to begin is now. Today.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at