TIME Courts

How John Roberts’ Supreme Court Is Slowly Bridging the Political Divide

John G Roberts Jr
Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has overseen a shift in the way the Supreme Court approaches cases. Stephan Savoia—AP

Partisans are crowing about Monday's divided Supreme Court decision, but ideological division appears to be on decline in the nation's highest court

Nine years into his service as Chief Justice, John Roberts may finally have shaped the nation’s highest tribunal into a “Roberts Court.” The term that ended on Monday was a reflection of goals that Roberts set during his 2005 confirmation hearings—more unanimous opinions, for example, and a more modest idea of the Supreme Court’s role in society.

Despite two 5-to-4 splits on the final day of term, in cases involving union dues and the Affordable Care Act, the Roberts Court delivered unanimous opinions in more than 60 percent of the cases decided this year, the highest percentage in decades. That doesn’t happen by accident. As the eminent Constitutional authority Lawrence Tribe of Harvard Law School has noted, a number of these 9-to-0 opinions contain significant disputes just beneath the surface. The Roberts Court is placing high value, in a time of polarized government, on finding common ground in spite of real philosophical differences.

And there was something distinctive about those 5-to-4 calls on the final day, as well. Faced with sharp splits that could not be papered over, Roberts assigned the same associate justice to write both of the opinions: Samuel Alito.

Alito is a fascinating judge—that is, if modesty and predictability happen to fascinate you. Arguably the purest conservative on the Court, Alito disdains the sort of flashy, rhetorical disagreement perfected by Antonin Scalia and former Justice John Paul Stevens, the dueling dissenters of the earlier Rehnquist Court. His Monday rulings reflected both his conservatism and his judicial modesty. In a case challenging the power of public employee unions to impose fees on non-members, Alito’s opinion went against the union. But he stopped well short of the sweeping blow that anti-union politicians and pundits were hoping for.

Likewise, in a case asking whether the owners of private corporations can be forced to provide contraception methods that offend their religious beliefs, Alito anchored a majority in favor of the owners. But his opinion was hedged throughout. Questions of how the ruling might apply to publicly traded corporations, or whether it might apply to other religious convictions, were left for another day.

In 2005, Roberts famously compared this narrow approach to a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes. The umpire is not making a blanket ruling covering every conceivable pitch. The idea is to frame a strike zone and apply it consistently on a pitch-by-pitch basis. The fact that Alito wrote both of the last-day opinions suggests that he’s the justice that Roberts wants behind the plate on the close calls. This matters because the Chief Justice has so few powers, and one of the most important is that when the Chief is part of the majority, he gets to choose the writer.

By such small increments, change comes to the Supreme Court. It is, by its nature, a slow-moving institution. And the Chief Justice is the least powerful of the leaders of the branches of American government—just one of nine voices, all with an equal say in which cases the Court will hear and how they will be decided. But step by step, opinion by opinion, Roberts is stamping his image on the institution. The term that ended on Monday put us clearly into the Roberts Court era.

TIME

The War That Changed The World

On the centenary of 
 World War I, a selection of rare photos brings color to a catastrophe that ruined a generation and completely upended the old world order

One hundred years ago this summer, sparked by the June 28 assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Europe plunged blindly into a global war that would leave nearly 10 million soldiers dead, twice that number wounded, countless civilians slaughtered or ruined, economies wrecked, empires toppled and the disastrous seeds of communism and fascism sown in ground, fertilized by blood and anguish. “All gods dead,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it in the war’s wake, “all faiths in man shaken.”

The manmade disaster that was first called the Great War wrenched Europe out of the past and thrust it into a dystopian future. This is when the genocides began, and bombs first fell from the skies, when old orders discredited themselves with nothing better to take their places. The good were left exhausted by the carnage—which gave evil a head start in the next round of that eternal competition.

Despite the scale of the conflict’s death toll and its historical weight, World War I occupies a surprisingly small space in the Western memory, perhaps because it had no silver lining—no slaves were freed, no death camps liberated by brave American GIs. The story is told (when it’s told at all) through herky-jerky black-and-white movies of men in silly helmets moving like Claymation dolls, and goggled pilots in flimsy biplanes, and soldiers wearing gas masks like snouts.

These experimental color photographs, on the other hand, narrow the distance between us and that wasteland. They reach across the century to remind us that those millions dead were once as real and warm as we. Theirs was not an alien, colorless landscape. It was our world—and could be again, should we forget the lessons of World War I.

TIME Military

Iraq Vet Killed In Gunfight With Police Was Turned Away by VA Hospital

Army Specialist Isaac Sims is seen here in a holiday greeting he sent from Ramadi, Iraq in 2009. 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division Public Affairs/US Army

Agency, amid overcrowding scandal, says case of Kansas City soldier suffering from PTSD symptoms is under investigation

Correction appended, May 28, 2014

The bloodstained floor of his father’s garage is a long way from the Iraq streets where Isaac Sims served two tours of duty in the U.S. Army’s famed 82nd Airborne Division, but it was there that the violence finally caught up with him.

Tortured by symptoms of PTSD, turned away by an overbooked hospital run by the Department of Veterans Affairs—his mother says she pleaded with doctors to let him sleep on the hospital floor—Sims was shot by Kansas City police on Sunday after they answered a neighbor’s 911 call. Police say Sims was firing a gun from inside his parents’ home and was killed when he moved to the garage and leveled the weapon at the SWAT team.

Family members don’t believe that the 23-year-old veteran was a threat to police. “With his sniper training, if he was shooting at them he would’ve hit them,” his sister Shawnda Anderson told TIME. But everyone could agree that the root cause of the confrontation was that Staff Sergeant Sims was falling to pieces, and felt like he had nowhere to turn.

“He was in so much turmoil from seeing so many dead bodies in Iraq,” said Anderson. Patricia Sims, mother of the dead soldier, put it this way: “The last six months have been such a nightmare for him. The V.A. kept saying, ‘we’ll get to you later.’ ”

Officials at the V.A. hospital in Kansas City referred questions about the case to Washington, where a department spokesperson said that the “matter is currently under investigation.” Citing federal privacy laws, the agency declined to discuss any specifics of Sims’s case.

Still, the reality of V.A. overcrowding has been commanding headlines and driving Congressional hearings for weeks, driven by revelations that some hospitals have falsified records to mask long wait times. As the daughter of a Korean War veteran, wife of a Vietnam vet, and mother of a veteran of the Iraq War, Patricia Sims knows a lot about the V.A. system, and she said Tuesday that the Kansas City hospital is “great compared to a lot of places” in the system. “But they’re slow; they’re overbooked; they put him off and they put him off and now he’s dead.”

She spoke as friends and family members moved dazedly around the scene of the young man’s death in eastern Kansas City. The family car was on blocks—disabled by police during the stand off, she said. Meanwhile, a funeral home was refusing to collect the body on behalf of the family without payment up front. Shawnda Anderson said that her parents weren’t even sure they wanted to pay a funeral home: to bury their son would only confirm that he is truly gone.

According to family, Sims lived an itinerate childhood, traveling the country from one trailer park to the next as his father pursued work as an electrician. A gentle, peacemaking sort of boy, he never grew tall (his sister puts him at 5-foot-3, but according to a Facebook post, he preferred to say 5-foot-5). But he was wiry and dogged, and at 17 enlisted in the Army for what he intended to be a career.

(In 2009, Sims recorded a holiday greeting from Iraq. Watch below)

Instead, after six years and two combat tours, he mustered out, suffering from unspecified disabilities. Unmoored, he began abusing drugs—huffing aerosols primarily—and behaving erratically, his mother said. According to one source who had been briefed on his medical history, Sims suffered “nightmares, flashbacks—just massive Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” with symptoms easily triggered, yet seemingly impossible for him to discuss.

In April, after pleading guilty to two counts of domestic violence, Sims came under the supervision of Municipal Court Presiding Judge Ardie Bland. Widely admired for his work with troubled veterans, Bland placed Sims on probation through a program jointly run by the court and the V.A. Launched in 2009, the Veterans’ Treatment Court tries to restore veterans to “law abiding, productive lives within the country they have defended,” according to municipal court spokesperson Benita Jones. The probation was to include intensive treatment, random drug testing, and frequent reviews.

Sims was distraught over the conviction, which crushed his hopes of starting a new career as a police officer, his mother said. Increasingly alarmed by her son’s deterioration, she offered to send him with a blanket to the V.A.’s in-patient mental health facility, reckoning that a soldier doesn’t need a bed to sleep in. Instead, the intensive treatment envisioned by the special court failed to materialize in time.

“We are saddened by such a tragic loss,” Judge Bland said in a statement. “Our hearts must now go out to the family of Mr. Sims with our prayers and support. We will continue our efforts in the Veterans’ Treatment Court, in his honor and in honor of the others that have served this country.”

A memorial fund has been established in Sims’ name at the United Credit Union.

According to police: A neighbor reported shots fired from the Sims home shortly after noon on Sunday. The SWAT team fanned out, surrounding the house, and the inhabitants of the 2300 block of Lawndale Avenue were evacuated to safety. Hostage negotiators quickly researched the soldier’s story in hopes of coaxing him out. But “things went rapidly downhill,” in the words of one witness, and in a spatter of gunfire Isaac Sims went down, dead on the battlefield that had consumed his life.

And there was one more fallen soldier to mourn on Memorial Day.

-with reporting by Karen Ball/Kansas City

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Department of Veterans Affairs
TIME

The Problem With Graduation Speaker Purity Tests

The protests forcing some commencement speakers to withdraw are a reminder that students are better at challenging values than maintaining them

These are salad days for organizers of petition drives. Never has it been so easy to circulate demands and collect virtual signatures. Not long ago, ardent activists clutched clipboards outside grocery stores or student unions as apathetic passers-by pretended not to notice them. But social media streamlines the search for the like-minded—a fact the White House discovered recently when more than 270,000 people joined a demand that misbehaving pop star Justin Bieber be deported to his native Canada.

It follows that these are glum times for college presidents. Zealous students at such institutions as Brandeis University, Smith College and Rutgers University have leveraged social media to drive away invited graduation–day speakers. They make it look so easy that students elsewhere will surely be tempted to join in the fun.

So far, the young thought police have used their powers to enforce left-wing purity, amid signs that today’s students have moved beyond identity politics to new orthodoxies. Trustees at Smith, an all–women’s college, probably thought they would be inspiring their students by inviting Christine Lagarde of France, the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund. Hardly. Lagarde bowed out on May 12 after a barrage of complaints about the IMF’s “imperialistic” lending policies (as one petition signer put it).

Earlier this spring, Brandeis rescinded an offer of an honorary degree to the provocative writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose criticism of Islam for antifeminist tendencies was dubbed “hate speech” by petitioners. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed out of the Rutgers commencement ceremony after students denounced her as a “war criminal” for her role in the Bush Administration’s war on terror.

At Haverford College, students demanded an abject apology before an honorary degree could be granted to Robert Birgeneau, the recently retired chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and a champion of access to higher education for undocumented immigrants. Birgeneau’s offense was that he presided over Berkeley in 2011, when campus police used rough tactics with students who were protesting state budget cuts. Rather than grovel, Birgeneau withdrew.

Fish swim, birds fly, students protest. Anyone who has been 20 years old surely recalls the fierce clarity of a college student’s mind. The sharp steel of a whetted education, undulled by the nicks and scrapes of experience, makes for the sort of slashing brilliance that breeds innovators and -artists—and revolutionaries. But they are better at challenging values than maintaining them.

As Smith’s president, Kathleen McCartney, put in when announcing Lagarde’s withdrawal, the protesters got what they wanted, “but at what cost to Smith College?”

If America’s treasured institutions of higher learning are to remain bastions of free speech and arenas of robust debate, there must be grownups ready to defend those ideals. And those grownups had better brace themselves for their own online denunciations, because the times, they are a-changin’.

TIME

America’s Long and Grisly Search for the Perfect Way to Kill

A botched execution in Oklahoma is just the latest instance of capital punishment going awry

The botched execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett proved once again that there is no reliably non-violent way to snuff out a healthy human life. The modern history of state-sanctioned homicide has been a fruitless quest for an execution method that gets the job done quickly without offending the squeamish.

Lockett was to die Tuesday for the 1999 rape and murder of a teenage girl. According to the Oklahoma execution protocol, after feeling a brief sting as an IV line was inserted into his arm, the inmate would slip into unconsciousness before receiving fatal doses of two other drugs.

Instead, after seeming to fall unconscious, Lockett awoke and began struggling against the restraints on the gurney where he lay. He gasped, muttered, and writhed. It turned out that the IV line was not properly placed in a vein—not an uncommon failure in chemical executions. In Ohio in 2006 and again in 2009, technicians botched lethal injections, and it has happened in a number of other states as well.

Lockett finally died of a heart attack, bringing his gruesome struggle to an end. Many people will note (with justification) that even so, he met a peaceful end compared to the girl he helped to terrorize, brutalize, and bury alive.

But the American death penalty has been characterized by competing impulses: a desire for vengeance, in hopes that the ultimate penalty will express our society’s determination to deter heinous crimes, and a wish to be humane.

It has not always been so. From crucifixion to gibbeting to winding, from burning and stoning to drawing and quartering, execution methods of old were designed to exact maximum suffering. Executions were a form of mass communication: take heed, and don’t end up like this guy. During the French Revolution, the guillotine eliminated the prolonged suffering while continuing to deliver an unmistakable message, but it was a disturbing sight for witnesses upset by blood and gore.

(Read More: Every Execution in U.S. History in a Single Chart)

Hanging—America’s preferred execution method during the first 100 years of the republic—was widely adopted as a more antiseptic approach, one that would not traumatize or debase witnesses. Properly done, the thick hangman’s knot is designed to strike the prisoner’s skull with such force that he is unconscious as his neck snaps and the rope chokes away his life. That’s the idea, anyway.

In fact, so many hangings resulted in decapitation (when the drop was too long) or conscious strangulation (when the drop was too short) that jurisdictions rushed to follow the lead of New York state, which carried out the first electric chair execution in 1890. The great inventor Thomas Edison promoted the lethal power of alternating current in an attempt to discredit his business rival George Westinghouse. (Edison preferred direct current.) Following Edison’s lead, developers of the electric chair compared their execution method to the swift, sure blow of a lightning bolt. The brain would be knocked out by the blast, after which the internal organs would quickly heat up to the failure point.

And sometimes it worked out that way. Often, it did not. Insufficient voltage often left prisoners stunned, but breathing. In even the most peaceful executions, smoke would rise from contact points, while muscles contracted violently and joints fractured. In extreme cases—a Florida electrocution in 1990, for example—the prisoner’s body caught fire.

Another attempt to find the perfect execution technique led to the introduction of the gas chamber in Nevada in 1924. Though California quickly adopted the technology and put it to frequent use, witnesses often described frantic, choking, vomiting prisoners inside the tightly sealed capsules.

Lethal injection was devised as a way to end all that. Prisoners would be “put to sleep” as gently as a kindly veterinarian ends the suffering of an elderly dog. What Lockett’s death showed, however, is that a gentle end requires the participation of a skilled technician or nurse who can reliably install a proper IV line. With leading medical associations opposed on principle to the idea of professional healers taking part in executions, highly skilled individuals are unlikely to participate.

So expect more botched executions. And if history holds true, expect continued experiments in search of a foolproof method. This seesaw story of the American death penalty applies in courtrooms, jury rooms, and execution chambers: the endless search for perfection. Perfect knowledge of guilt, perfect fairness in sentencing, perfect dispatch in execution.

The problem is, nobody’s perfect.

TIME justice

More Innocent People on Death Row Than Estimated: Study

Lethal Injection Execution
Walls Unit in Huntsville prison where lethal injections are carried out on inmates in Huntsville, Texas. Jerry Cabluck—Sygma/Corbis

New research finds that almost four percent of U.S. capital punishment sentences are wrongful convictions, almost double the number of people set free, meaning around 120 of the roughly 3,000 inmates on death row in America are not guilty

The United States may be putting more innocent people to death than previously thought. According to a sweeping new statistical analysis made public today, the rate of wrongful death sentences in the U.S. is probably much higher than experts have estimated.

Authors of the study say that their “conservative estimate of the proportion of erroneous convictions” is 4.1 percent, or approximately twice the number actually exonerated and set free from death row. This could mean that approximately 120 of the roughly 3,000 inmates on death row in America might not be guilty, while additional scores of wrongfully convicted inmates are serving life in prison after their death sentences were reduced over technical legal errors.

“False convictions … are extremely difficult to detect after the fact,” law professors Samuel R. Gross of the University of Michigan and Barbara O’Brien of Michigan State write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a prestigious peer-reviewed journal. “As a result, the great majority of innocent defendants remain undetected. The rate of such errors is often described as a ‘dark figure’.”

But by applying statistical models derived from the study of medicine and mortality, the authors assert that “it possible to use data on death row exonerations to estimate the overall rate of false conviction among death sentences.” Two experts in biostatistics, Chen Hu of the American College of Radiology and Edward H. Kennedy of the University of Pennsylvania, crunched the data with that goal in mind.

“This study provides the first rigorous estimate of the rate of conviction of innocent criminal defendants in any context,” said Bruce Levin, a Columbia University professor who is a leading authority on statistics and the law. It could add fuel to the slowly rising misgivings of Americans about the practice and flaws of capital punishment in the U.S. A recent Pew Research survey found that 37% of U.S. adults oppose the death penalty for convicted murderers — up from 31% in 2011 and 18% in 1996. Since 2007, six states have abolished the ultimate sanction, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, though a recent attempt to repeal it in New Hampshire failed after the state legislature deadlocked.

To calculate the rate of wrongful convictions, the new study applied an analytical framework from the world of medical statistics to a set of data comprising all prisoners sentenced to death between 1976 and 2004. Strap on your thinking caps, because this gets a bit topsy-turvy for us non-statisticians.

“Survival analysis” is the mechanism that Gross and his colleagues employed. In a medical context, this is a method for estimating the likelihood that patients who contract a certain disease or injury will survive. Variables like the treatment method or the amount of time lost before treatment can be fed into the analysis to squeeze more information from the data.

An analyst who wants to know how likely a man with Lyme disease is to die of the infection arranges the variables to isolate the number of fatal cases. Gross and company turned the analysis on its head: the fatal event they were looking for was not death, but exoneration. Their overall population was the number of prisoners originally “infected,” if you will, with death sentences, and the slice they were trying to find was the number of patients likely to pass away into freedom.

It gets trickier. The likelihood of an innocent prisoner being exonerated depends very much on whether the government is actively trying to kill him. As the authors of the study observed: “Death sentences represent less than one-tenth of 1% of prison sentences in the United States, but they accounted for about 12% of known exonerations of innocent defendants.” This “extraordinary exoneration rate” for prisoners facing execution—more than 130-to-1 compared to the background population of prisoners—is evidence of the reality that “far more attention and resources are devoted to death penalty cases than to other criminal prosecutions, before and after conviction.”

But a large proportion (more than one-third) of death row inmates have their sentences reduced at some point to life in prison. And when that happens, typically the “attention and resources” dry up as lawyers and investigators shift their focus to other prisoners on death row. Something similar happens in the cases of prisoners who die by suicide or natural cases while waiting on death row. The authors believe that the true rate of wrongful capital convictions must include those prisoners who leave the intense scrutiny of the capital appeals process before their potential innocence is revealed.

To model that, Gross and his associates dial up the so-called “Kaplan-Meier estimator,” at which point the math gets chewier. I can say from my experience covering capital punishment in the U.S. that the authors bring a deep understanding of the labyrinthine system to their model. But I can also say that scholars have been using sophisticated statistical modeling to analyze this topic for at least half a century, and for every conclusion there are sure to be detractors with their own set of numbers.

Each quest for mathematical clarity only serves to underline the troubling paradox at the heart of the modern death penalty. We want the option of execution (every poll confirms this, even as the percentages in favor of capital punishment appear to be trending downward). But we also want certainty. Countless hours and mountains of money have been spent trying to perfect the process, and they have given us only the confusion and waste of the seemingly endless appeals process.

At some point, we will realize that, when it comes to capital punishment, the most important thing to know is how much we can never know for certain.

Von Drehle, editor-at-large for TIME, is the author of Among the Lowest of the Dead: The Culture of Capital Punishment.

TIME

This Is What Real Affirmative Action Would Look Like

Instead of ignoring disadvantaged kids for 12 years and then tilting the field in their favor, start early to support their chances of success

Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivered a robust eulogy for the traditional affirmative-action policies that the Supreme Court officially buried in a case out of Michigan decided last week. She hit hard at the most salient point in favor of the policies: that putting a thumb on the scale in favor of a student of color is no more unfair than putting a thumb on the scale in favor of children of alumni — especially alumni wealthy enough to write checks to the school.

Yet it has long seemed to me that most of what Sotomayor thinks of as affirmative action has become a crutch for schools and other institutions. It’s an excuse for them to take minimal action of the least affirmative kind. Killing it might force schools to be more active and more affirmative in their efforts to achieve diversity.

Here’s my thinking:

The ruling announced by the court last week, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, was the continuation of years of controversy in Michigan. Eleven years ago, in a linked pair of rulings, the Supreme Court struck down the University of Michigan’s undergraduate affirmative-action program because it automatically added points in favor of minority applicants regardless of their individual qualities. At the same time, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Justices upheld the Michigan law-school program because it made race just one factor in its person-by-person analysis of applicants.

Michigan voters responded by approving a ballot initiative that amended the state constitution to ban all traditional affirmative-action programs. The latest ruling — a 6-2 majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy — upheld the right of the voters to take that step. It’s likely the opinion will encourage some other states to do likewise.

What strikes me about the banned program and others like it is how little they actually do to increase the opportunity for poor and minority students to go to college. The august institutions of higher learning tend their websites and publish their catalogs, but otherwise pretty much figure that they’ve built the school, now students will come. Minority students with the imagination to seek an education and the discipline to complete high school (often in failing public schools) get extra points in favor of their applications. But far more underprivileged youngsters never make it to the point of applying.

Schools that truly want to increase the number of disadvantaged kids in their freshman class should take far more affirmative actions than they’ve taken in the past. They should hire scouts in the inner cities and decaying suburbs to look for bright elementary-school students. They should go into the homes of those children to explain to their parents that success in college can be a path to prosperity for the entire family. They should create advertising campaigns around their most successful minority students and alums, glamorizing the idea of academic achievement.

Steps like these should be taken for all disadvantaged kids of promise, regardless of race. But because they are aimed at the bottom of the economic ladder, they will serve to advance young people of color. If every major college and university in the country were to get serious about truly affirmative actions like these, I’m pretty confident we would ultimately see more high school seniors from minority groups who are able to meet race-blind admission standards. Instead of ignoring them for 12 years, then tilting the field in their favor when most of them have already given up, start early to support their chances of success.

Sound crazy? I might cop to the charge but for one fact: our major colleges and universities are already doing all of these things — and more — to raise the number of topflight athletes on their campuses. I would venture that there is not one 10-year-old basketball phenom in the state of Michigan who is not already on the radar of the big state schools. Indeed, a tall boy or girl with a good inside move is going to be scouted by universities across the country. He or she will be visited at home by university recruiters who fly in on private jets and fill Mom with visions of big paychecks to come. Meanwhile, the sports information departments and marketing teams spend vast sums and countless hours to tell the stories of each school’s greatest athletes, knowing that these stories will inspire the next young stars to follow in those footsteps.

Let me be clear: I’m not against college sports, which have been a path to success for thousands of young Americans who might otherwise never have been exposed to higher education. But our institutions of higher learning are heavily subsidized by taxpayers (rightfully so!), and we have purchased the right to expect that they will be as affirmative and as active in building young scholars. Leaving students of promise to find their own way to the college doorstep, then putting a thumb on the scale in the admissions office, is simply too late — and much too little.

TIME Kansas City shooting

Kansas City Shooting Is Hate of an Ancient Vintage

Classmates of one of the victims hug during a prayer service for the victims of the Jewish Community Center shootings in Leawood, Kans., on April 13, 2014 John Sleezer—Kansas City Star/MCT/Getty Images

Though the police remain cautious on motive, for many the attack at a Jewish community center outside Kansas City leaves little doubt over the assailant's anti-Semitic views

At a press conference four hours after three people were killed in shootings at two Jewish facilities near Kansas City, Mo., authorities cautiously noted that they did not yet know the motive. Only after prompting did John Douglass, chief of police in the sprawling suburb of Overland Park, Kans., say “We are investigating it as a hate crime.”

At 10:15 p.m. E.T., when I asked Douglass over the phone why the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City (JCC) was targeted, he reiterated, very reasonably, “We’re being very careful not to put out anything that we don’t know for certain.”

But one look at the campus of the JCC leaves little doubt. Set well back from nearby thoroughfares, nestled behind berms on the campus of Sprint’s corporate headquarters, the center is not the sort of place that a gunman finds at random.

And if history teaches anything, it’s the sad fact that when a gunman seeks out a Jewish center and opens fire, the motive is hate of an ancient vintage.

Three people were dead on Sunday, the eve of Passover, two more had narrowly escaped being wounded (in one case, a student’s backpack was hit), and a suspect was in custody. Apparently, the gunman first murdered a woman on the parking lot of Village Shalom, a Jewish-oriented retirement development, then drove a short distance north to kill a 14-year-old boy and his grandfather at the JCC.

A short time later, police arrested a bearded man in his 70s outside an elementary school a mile from the second crime scene. Reporters at the scene said he smiled as he was taken away from a white sedan with a Missouri license plate, and that he may have called out “Heil Hitler!”

Roiling dark rain clouds swept over the neighborhood as police and FBI agents began gathering evidence. They spoke to witnesses who told them that the JCC facility was bustling on Sunday at about 1 p.m. Members were working out in the fitness center, actors were rehearsing for an upcoming performance of To Kill a Mockingbird, and throngs of teenagers from throughout the metro area were gathering to audition for the KC SuperStar talent competition.

“There were tons of kids because this was about to start at 1 o’clock,” competition publicist Ruth Bigus told the Kansas City Star.

One of the victims — identified by the Kansas City Star as Eagle Scout Reat Griffin Underwood, a high school freshman — may have been on his way to the tryouts. The gunman used a shotgun to kill the boy and his grandfather, identified by the Star as William Lewis Corporon, a physician, as they arrived in the parking lot.

Overland Park police have long been sensitive to the possibility of anti-Semitic violence in the area, which is home to a number of synagogues and other prominent Jewish institutions. An off-duty police officer was reportedly stationed at the JCC and may have played a role in ending the rampage. Police chief Douglass reported that the gunman may have had other weapons besides the shotgun — suggesting that he might have planned to kill more people.

As the suspect fled, staff at the community center put a well-rehearsed disaster plan into action. Dozens of people were ushered into inside rooms as outside doors were locked tight. Young musicians huddled on the auditorium floor, while others crowded into locker rooms. Given the ominous spring weather, many people initially believed they were responding to a tornado warning; only after about 15 minutes were they told about the shootings.

Douglass confirmed that an off-duty officer was at work inside the JCC at the time of the shooting. The officer helped guide people to safety, then rushed outside as the gunman was driving away. By then, calls were flooding into 911. “We realized we had an active shooter in the vicinity, so the protocol is to flood the zone with first responders,” said the chief. “We quickly found the suspect sitting in his car at the school parking lot.”

Officials at the Church of the Resurrection, a large United Methodist congregation in nearby Leawood, Kans., reported on Sunday evening that Corporon, who died at the scene of the crime, and Underwood, who died as surgeons struggled to save him at Overland Park Regional Medical Center, were members of their church. There was nothing remotely surprising about the fact that a Christian teenager and his grandfather were visiting the JCC. Thousands of Kansas City residents of every faith (and no faith at all) are made welcome each year at the center’s many public events.

Unfortunately, that spirit of community means nothing to a bigot with murder in his heart. He sees the word Jewish and the word shalom (peace), and that’s all he needs to know.

Chief Douglass was being a careful professional when he said “It’s too early in the investigation to try to label it. We know it’s a vicious act of violence.” Douglass continued, but before calling it a hate crime “we’re going to have to know more about it.”

For the rest of us, the facts speak for themselves.

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