White Right-Wing Christian Terrorist

Tuesday, when CBS News did a segment on the man who killed seven at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, one word was conspicuously absent: terrorist. All the pieces to make that judgment were in place: Wade Michael Page had a long history in white supremacist groups. (The album covers of his white-supremacist bands are pictured at the bottom of this article, where you can easily avoid looking at them.) His victims were non-Christian and non-white, and they gathered at a non-Christian temple.

His massacre was violence against civilians, apparently for the political purpose of terrorizing the racial or religious groups they belong to. That’s terrorism.

No white Christian terrorists. But the mainstream media doesn’t often call white Christians terrorists, and even if they express their motives in Christian or white-supremacist terms, you seldom run across the phrase “white Christian terrorist”. Almost by definition, terrorists are Muslims. And conversely, violent Muslims are terrorists.

When someone does tie a terrorist act to Christianity, you can count on seeing a lot of pushback — articles begging for nuance, emphasizing how out of the Christian mainstream the terrorist’s views are, refusing to take seriously a childhood connection to Christianity, and instead demanding specific evidence of a religious motive (which hasn’t shown up yet in Page’s case). Again, these principles don’t apply when the killer has brown skin and a Muslim name.

The white killer also gets portrayed with more sympathy. The CBS report includes pictures of Page as a cute boy, and shows his step-mother describing him as “kind and gentle and loving”.

I’ll bet Khalid Sheik Mohammed was a cute child once, but this is the picture of him I’ve seen over and over.

No right-wing terrorists. You also don’t hear the term “right-wing terrorist” very often. In 2009, a report by the Department of Homeland Security called attention to the problem of right-wing violence, and identified “disgruntled military veterans” as targets for recruitment by right-wing hate groups. It quoted a civil rights organization:

large numbers of potentially violent neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other white supremacists are now learning the art of warfare in the [U.S.] armed forces.

The potential recruits were “a small percentage” of veterans, but a small percentage of a large number can still be disturbingly large.

Page was precisely the kind of veteran the report was talking about. But it’s too late for the report’s author (Daryl Johnson) to get credit in DHS, because he’s long gone. The report raised a furor in the right-wing media, which interpreted it as a slander against both veterans and the rising Tea Party movement.

Michelle Malkin wrote in the Washington Times:

It’s no small coincidence that Ms. Napolitano’s agency disseminated the assessment just a week before the nationwide April 15 Tax Day Tea Party protests.

Her column ended: “We are all right-wing extremists now. Welcome to the club.” That message was echoed by Fox News and Republican leaders: Right-wing terrorism was something the Obama administration dreamed up to slander all conservatives.

DHS responded to the furor by dissolving Johnson’s team, and Johnson himself left DHS a year after the report was published.

What I think is going on. There is an underlying narrative in mainstream culture that People Like You are threatened by People Like Them. If a story fits neatly into that frame, then OK, go with it.

But if the obvious interpretation of an event is that People Like You are the threat, that’s a problem. Nobody wants to hear that. And so Juan Cole’s Top Ten differences between White Terrorists and Others includes:

6. White terrorists are random events, like tornadoes. Other terrorists are long-running conspiracies.

 Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf puts it like this:

Watching Oak Creek, that subset of Americans was put in a position to realize that a day prior they’d have identified with the terrorist more than his victims. And so they quickly looked away.

Instead, we want to hear that the Threatening One is really not like us after all. He’s not a member of a group; he’s a loner. He’s not acting on beliefs that we share; he’s crazy. And his action is not a one-sided eruption of our hate onto their innocence; he’s a tortured soul who once had the potential for goodness; the suffering he inflicts arises from his own suffering.

The same thing happens on smaller scales. A couple years ago, the director of my church’s religious education program was describing the articles she’d been reading about bullying. They all discussed how to help your child deal with being bullied. “None of them,” she told me, “addressed the possibility that your child might be the bully.”

But the bully is always someone’s child. And no one wants to hear that.

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Comments

  • Dave  On August 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    After reading this, I was thinking about people I know who would react negatively to this analysis and come up with any number of rationalizations for their bias. I realized that your piece is an appeal to intellectual honesty, and that these people really don’t care about intellectual honesty. Then I started asking myself why they don’t care, and ended up posing this question on their behalf, “Why should I care about intellectual honesty? What’s in it for me? How does it make my world better/safer?” and realized that they may actually need an answer to those questions. Maybe a subject for a post some day.

    • weeklysift  On August 14, 2012 at 8:12 am

      That is a good topic that deserves a longer answer, but one aphorism I throw around is: “Reality is an acquired taste.” It’s like spicy food or coffee; the first time you get a blast of reality it’s like “Why does anybody like this?” But reality has an intricate beauty that no cartoon fantasy can match.

      • Kim Cooper  On August 17, 2012 at 2:07 pm

        One of my favorite ideas from a favorite novel*, is that lying is theft: when you lie to me, you steal my ability to make decisions based on reality. This is another idea to pursue if you do write on the value of intellectual honesty.
        As a non-rational, religious argument for honesty: the only people Jesus really spoke against were hypocrites.
        *”The Warhound and The World’s Pain” by Michael Moorcock. It’s out of print, but if any of you know Stephen Spielberg, tell him to make a movie of it.

  • Jalal Michael  On August 13, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    The real terrorist is the one who blow himself up to kill innocent people,The savage ideology makes them that way .DO NOT compere apples to rocks.Colorado,,Wis. events were event were crimes have with terrorism.The Arab who killed 23 soldier in Virginia is a terrorist.

    • weeklysift  On August 14, 2012 at 8:07 am

      Actually, Major Hasan was not a terrorist. He attacked a military base. So he’s a traitor, but not a terrorist.

  • Anonymous  On August 14, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    One interesting idea. I dont believe it is right to hold anyone indefinitely without trial for any reason, but suppose a terrorist act is committed by a White Christian. Why is there no effort to move him to Gitmo or some other holding facility and pursue “advance interrogation” or whatever the administration moniker is for torture at this point in time? Is trial by jury only good enough for Whites?

Trackbacks

  • By If They Win « The Weekly Sift on August 13, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    […] In particular, what happens when the terrorist looks just like the viewing majority? Well, the media has to explain that away somehow. I named my article after the phrase you’ll never hear on mainstream TV: White Right-wing Christian Terrorist. […]

  • By The Ferguson Test | The Weekly Sift on August 18, 2014 at 9:37 am

    […] presented in the media as aberrations. Often they are portrayed as crazy loners, even when they belong to groups that promote precisely the kinds of crimes they commit. If you’re a law-abiding white […]

  • By Newspeaking About Torture | The Weekly Sift on December 22, 2014 at 7:54 am

    […] other soldiers. But hardly anyone (except me) called the Sikh Temple murderer what he was: a white right-wing Christian terrorist. White Christian right-wingers can’t be terrorists any more; it’s an […]

  • By Perhaps Mentally Ill | The Weekly Sift on June 22, 2015 at 9:59 am

    […] “accident“. (I discussed this phenomenon after the 2012 Sikh Temple shooting in “White Right-Wing Christian Terrorist“.) An interviewer at RT put it like […]

  • […] abortion clinics and murdering doctors. Hate crimes against blacks, immigrants, or Muslims are usually portrayed as the work of isolated maniacs, but in fact killers like Dylann Roof and Wade Michael Page have had far stronger relationships […]

  • By Exhaustive Methods | The Weekly Sift on December 19, 2016 at 10:49 am

    […] To no one’s great surprise, Dylann Roof was found guilty of killing nine members of Charleston’s Mother Emanuel Church. The death penalty is still a possibility. Most coverage of the story still makes him sound like a disturbed individual, rather than a terrorist radicalized by the white-supremacist movement. This is typical; I’ve been writing about the same phenomenon for more than four years. […]

  • […] abortion clinics and murdering doctors. Hate crimes against blacks, immigrants, or Muslims are usually portrayed as the work of isolated maniacs, but in fact killers like Dylann Roof and Wade Michael Page have had far stronger relationships […]

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