Welcome to college, where your first lesson is: There's no crime so extreme, no criminal so twisted, that the rest of us aren't somehow at fault for it.

That's the reaction I have when I see stories like the one that just came from the University of Maryland. There, the university just gave all 10,000 incoming freshmen copies of The Laramie Project, a play based on the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. You probably recall the story, given all the press it got; Shepard met two men in a bar, left with them, was viciously pistol-whipped, burned and left tied to a fence. The men, both of whom had criminal records, were quickly arrested and later convicted. But in no time flat, gay activists and media outlets were blaming the "climate of hate" created by groups that criticized homosexuality (Katie Couric pointed the finger at Focus on the Family), and the airwaves were filled with tales of the "epidemic of hate crimes" sweeping America.

The Laramie Project, a play that also ran as an HBO movie earlier this year, picks up the same theme; the murder wasn't just the work of a couple of thugs, but a manifestation of the bigotry of those backward folk who haven't shed their irrational attitude toward homosexuality. HBO's Web site said the play exposes Laramie's "raw nerves of prejudice and fear." In New York magazine, drama critic John Simon hailed its portrayal of "life in the heartless heartlands."

Not that the play convicts everyone in Laramie of homicidal homophobia; after spending a year there interviewing 200-plus citizens, producers couldn't find much out and out bigotry. But that doesn't stop The Laramie Project from painting Shepard's killing as a manifestation of America's "prejudice and fear"--the inevitable product of any society that fails to embrace homosexuality. In fact, Laramie Project director Moises Kaufman (who is, not so incidentally, gay) claims that even criticizing his play is tantamount to fostering murder. When some conservatives objected to Maryland's promotion of his play as must-read material, his response was the height of melodrama: "How many more Matthew Shepards have to die before we can get past this conversation?"

Thanks, Moises. You've done a nice job of illuminating what this issue's really all about. It's not really about promoting "conversation" or "dialogue" or all those nice-sounding words university officials haul out when they subject their students to things like The Laramie Project. Just the opposite; it's about "getting past" conversations you don't like, and making sure you convert students to your point of view. If someone dissents, you can always link them to killers.

Pardon me if I say I've had more than my fill of such tactics. I'd rather respond to hysterical rhetoric with a few facts.

Take the "epidemic of hate crimes." The truth is, the very government agency that's been looking hardest for the "epidemic" is hard-pressed to find a trace of it.

P> I've been reading the FBI's annual hate-crimes report since the 1996 edition, when one number jumped out at me: Zero. Rows and rows of zeroes, page after page. The report compiles findings from nearly all the country's law-enforcement agencies (mostly local police and sheriffs' offices), and the vast bulk of them found not a single "hate crime" in their purview--not so much as a nasty slogan spray-painted on the sidewalk. (Yes, that sort of thing does get counted.)

Maybe all those zeroes embarrassed some government official somewhere, because you won't find nearly so many in the past couple years' editions. Instead, you'll find all the agencies that found no "bias-motivated incidents" (to use the government's language) lumped together and listed in the final section, like an afterthought. Even so, that list is hard to miss; it runs 72 pages. (See for yourself here. )

Mind you, it's possible to get an ominous sound bite out of the statistics. The 2000 Hate Crimes Report finds 8,063 of those "bias-motivated incidents," 1,486 of them based on "sexual orientation." But while some of these are real and ugly, there's a lot less to that number than you might think.