Last week saw two attacks that were motivated by religion in the state of California. Both attacks were carried out by devout Christians. One attack targeted Muslims, and the other targeted Jews.
On Tuesday, Isaiah Joel Peoples, a 34-year-old veteran of the Iraq War, drove into a crowd of pedestrians in Sunnyvale, CA.
Peoples struck eight people with his car. As of Saturday, four were still hospitalized. The most seriously injured victim was a 13-year-old girl who remains in a coma with serious brain trauma.
“New evidence shows that the defendant intentionally targeted the victims based on their race and his belief that they were of the Muslim faith,” Sunnyvale police chief Phan Ngo said.
According to reports, Peoples was driving to a Bible class on Tuesday. He told investigators that he intentionally drove in a group of men, women, and children.
Jay Boyarsky, the chief assistant district attorney, said, “There is very appalling and disturbing evidence that at least one or two of these victims were targeted based on the defendant’s view of what their race or religion may have been,” he said.
A witness who approached People's car after the incident said that he found him repeatedly muttering, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.”
Peoples remains in custody. He appeared in court on Friday for his arraignment. He is currently being held without bail.
Now, the other story.
Saturday was the final day of Passover, and as several of Peoples's victims remained in the hospital, a shooter opened fire at a synagogue in Poway, CA, near San Diego.
It was shortly before 11:30 am on Saturday, when 19-year-old John Earnest burst into the Chabad synagogue. He was armed with a semi-automatic rifle and began shooting at the Jewish congregants.
Lori Gilbert Kaye, a 60-year-old member of of the congregation, was killed. She had come to the synagogue with her husband and her 22-year-old daughter to mourn the death of her mother.
Three others were wounded in the attack, including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. Goldstein was wounded in both hands. Despite the wounds, he managed to help guide several congregants, including his 4-year-old granddaughter, outside of the synagogue. He then returned inside to help more people where he found Kaye's husband and daughter by her body.
At a news conference yesterday, Goldstein said, “In my own interpretation, Lori took the bullet for all of us. She died to protect all of us. This is Lori. This is her legacy, and her legacy will continue. It could have been so much worse.”
Earnest was chased off after his gun jammed. He was arrested not long after the attack.
Authorities have admitted that they suspect Earnest is responsible for a letter posted to the message board 8Chan, where he claimed responsibility for a fire set at a mosque in Escondido, CA on March 24th.
“I scorched a mosque in Escondido with gasoline a week after Brenton Tarrant’s sacrifice and they never found shit on me,” the letter read, referencing the attack in Christchurch, NZ earlier in March.
"I did not want to have to kill Jews," Earnest allegedly wrote. "But they have given us no other option. I’m just a normal dude who wanted to have a family, help and heal people, and play piano."
Earnest and his family are members of the Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church. His father is, according to reports, a church elder. Most of the people quoted in reports who knew Earnest said that he was "shy" or "quiet."
Many noted that this attack came six months to the day after the attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue. In that attack, Robert Bowers killed 11 people with a semi-automatic rifle while screaming, "All Jews must die!" at the Tree of Life synagogue. Given what Earnest wrote in his post on 8Chan, he and Bowers seem to have several things in common.
As I think about this, I consider that I am someone who has decided to devote a fair amount of my time to criticizing religion and irrational beliefs in general. This kind of violence is among the top reasons why I find religion so despicable. People are being motivated to commit terrible acts of violence against their fellow people over their differences in belief. And it is not just religion. The toxic political and social climate that continues to encourage people like Peoples and Earnest to do these things will keep producing these kinds of attacks until we find a way to have meaningful conversations about the dangers of dogmatic thinking in general.