An Open Letter to Venango County Court

My friend and his family are people of color, innocent, American, and just a family. They were accosted on an excursion, and I offer my character and expert witness to the court in which charges have been filed against the assailant of this hate crime. This is my testimony:

Your Honors, I’m writing today about the most troubling criminal charges filed against 61-year-old Mark R. Rauenswinter. On the evening of Sunday July 28tha family of four adults and five children went to the Rockland Township bike trail. Rauenswinter proceeded to ruin that experience for my friend and his family. He shouted profane slurs to disparage them based upon their skin color. He openly mocked the way he believed they prayed and told them he would bury them all in the river. Finally, when his abhorrent behavior did not repel the family, the visibly intoxicated man drove his golf cart to retrieve a .357 Taurus Magnum revolver. He returned, pointed it in the direction of the family, and fired two shots over their heads. He confesses that his motivation was to scare the family into leaving.

Terrorism: the use or threat of violence against civilians in the pursuit of political, religious, ideological or social objectives.

I am just a concerned citizen, aghast at the horror my friend and his family experienced. They were out for a pleasant family outing but made to fear for their lives. I will not speculate on the origins of Rauenswinter’s hate; there is no justification for his prejudice, and there can be no mistaking the condemnation that is required of the court. I am also a doctor of conflict management with two decades of experience working with and researching ethnic conflict and hate on four continents. I offer my recommendations motivated by truth and healing, both sorely needed in this case.

You have the discretion to decide how much consideration, if any, will be given to “hate crime factors.” I urge you to take the two shots directed at my friend and his family, as well as the derogatory slurs directed at their peaceful family gathering, most seriously. Please let me tell you about the victims and the damages inflicted in Rauenswinter’s act of race-based-terrorism.

Dr. Jamil Al Wekhian and I have known each other since 2012. We were in the same Ph.D. program studying International Conflict Management. I first worked with him when we presented together on efforts for building peace in contexts of ethnic conflict and intractable conflict. I write today, in part, because I (we) do not merely have opinions on what such a derogatory act represents, but because of expertise and years of serious review and evidence-based analysis of bigoted rhetoric and the psychological harms of terrorism.

At that conference, I presented on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a germinal project synthesizing truth, healing, and consequences for race-based violence. Pumla Gobobo-Madikizela’s (a psychologist) encounter with Eugene de Cock (“Prime Evil”) who commanded a death squad during apartheid, showcased another clear example of the tension between a need to heal and a need to punish. Reconciliation was not easy; seven years were added to the already long process before the commission could be completed. Keys in the process were truth and healing.

In the case before you today, Rauenswinter is absolutely unashamed and unapologetic in the video of the events I watched. He casually drinks his beer before driving off—he clearly does not care about drinking and driving, nor does he care about public access to public places by peaceable and wholesome families. His views and his behavior are absolutely outrageous; a clear message must be sent that this terrorism will not be tolerated in America.

The U.S. presents sacred values in things like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We codify into law principles of equality—E pluribus unum—from many one. This should insulate us all from the kind of dehumanizing lawlessness reflected in the grotesque decision to ‘scare them off.’ You must live up to your oath of office and vigorously denounce the un-American insinuation that minorities or foreign-born Americans or people of other faiths do not belong.

I am in the middle of my move to Ohio. Jamil could not be more inviting in his hospitality with an absolute willingness to open his home or offer a hand with any assistance he can offer—because he and his family are truly good people. They may well have already forgiven the act of hateful ignorance; Jamil is the kind of person who will fight injustice but is diligent in removing all anger from his own heart. I don’t think anyone will suggest this old man should serve some lengthy jail sentence, this is a call for correction, not for vengeance or revenge.

I hope the court acknowledges the magnitude of the offense. I have only just written another piece about the extremist shooting event last weekend in Gilroy California, when a 19-year-old white-supremacist killed three people including a 6-year old child, a teen girl, and wounded 15 others. All violence is dangerous, but these events of terror and xenophobia have an increased trauma-driven psychological impact. The children will never forget the gunshots, it strips their innocence away, and it degrades the conditions of community. When I have completed my move to Ohio and have friends visit, the court’s statement—on this case—will influence whether or not I will be willing to take guests to public places like the trails.

You are the guardians for our civil society. Do not accept a plea deal for “drunk and disorderly” while dismissing the other charges. That would be the legal equivalent of accepting that it was “just joking.” Take steps to help Mr. Rauenswinter get a handle on his clear substance use or abuse problem, as it is certainly a contributing factor. Take additional steps to restrict, at least temporarily, his access to firearms (hopefully they have already been surrendered). There is no place for arming a person who wants to use guns to endanger and terrify children in a civil society. Lastly, please direct him to one of the many resources which can address issues of hate and bias. The Kirwin Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University has been working to keep Charlottesville from happening in Ohio, and there are many other area programs as well. I know from personal experience teaching Introduction to Peace Studies in a maximum security prison in Georgia, education can soften hard hearts. Please take restorative steps, deliver us truth and healing, these attacks hurt us all—we are counting on you.


Dr. Wim Laven

Wim Laven has a PhD in International Conflict Management, he teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution, and is on the Executive Boards of the International Peace Research Association and the Peace and Justice Studies Association.