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”.
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.