Politics & Policy

Being a Good Progressive Doesn’t Make You Incapable of Hate

Karen Hicks talks to reporters on February 12
The wife of a man who murdered three Muslims has mounted an odd defense.

Attempting to throw a spanner into the humming rumor mill, the wife of the Chapel Hill killer told the media on Wednesday that her husband could not possibly be guilty of a hate crime because he was a committed progressive. “This incident,” Mrs. Hicks insisted, “had nothing to do with religion or victims’ faith but instead had to do with the longstanding parking disputes that my husband had with the neighbors.” As evidence of her spouse’s bona fides, she noted for the record that he “often champions on his Facebook page for the rights of many individuals” and is in favor of same-sex marriages and abortion. “He just believes that everyone is equal,” she concluded. It “doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are or what you believe.”

Unless you park your car in his spot, of course. Then you’re liable to be summarily executed.

It is, of course, entirely possible that the shooting was the product of a quotidian parking dispute, and that Craig Hicks was a terminally fussy busybody with a lethally short fuse. If anybody would know, one would presume it would be his wife. But it is also possible that these were merely proximate causes, and that Hicks really did have a sincere dislike of Muslim Americans. Certainly, one does not wish to kick a grieving wife when she is down. But it strikes me nevertheless that Mrs. Hicks’s blind rejection of the latter possibility is worthy of comment, for as far as she is concerned, the notion that her husband could have loathed Muslims to the breaking point is an inherently impossible one. “He couldn’t have done this,” she seems to say; “he supports all the right things.”

To acknowledge that this is a pathetic non sequitur is in no way to indict progressivism or atheism or North Carolinians per se — and nor is it to suggest that anybody other than the man who pulled the trigger is responsible in the killing. It is, however, to note pointedly that people of all ideologies and backgrounds can do terrible things, and that almost every philosophy can be lethally twisted by its professed adherents. Statistically speaking, almost all progressive atheists are peaceful people, and, customarily, their preference is for reasonable debate and not for violence. Nevertheless, it is entirely viable for us to acknowledge both that Hicks’s ostensible views are not a cause for broader concern and that he did indeed hold them. As is the case with anything else, both atheism and progressivism can be hijacked by zealots and employed as an excuse for their whims. Disdain can boil over into rank intolerance; restrained frustration can morph into a superiority complex; and political disagreement can mutate into the spluttering conviction that one’s ideological adversaries are responsible for screwing up the whole world. If Mrs. Hicks has information proving that the killings were indeed the product of a commonplace dispute — and not of her husband’s dislike of the religious or the foreign — she should provide it to the authorities. It will not do simply to presume that there is something intrinsic to progressivism that renders its adherents free from bigotry.

By appealing to the presumed virtues of her husband’s putative ideology, Mrs. Hicks is doing little more than indulging a form of the No True Scotsman fallacy. A few years ago, the comedian Ricky Gervais imagined a conversation between Adolf Hitler and Friedrich Nietzsche:

Hitler: Alright, Nietzsche

Nietzsche: Good, what do you want?

Hitler: Just read your book.

Nietzsche: Yeah? What do you think?

Hitler: Love it. Love all that. Man and Superman. Not everyone’s equal. Kill all the Jews.

Nietzsche: Sorry?

Hitler: Not everyone’s equal, so kill all the Jews.

Nietzsche: I didn’t write that!

Hitler: I read between the lines.

Nietzsche: I didn’t mean that. That’s terrible. You haven’t been killing Jewish people, have you?

Peaceful men will always struggle to grasp exactly how their political beliefs could be co-opted by the violent. Indeed, had he lived to see it so appallingly cited, Nietzsche would have presumably spent the latter years of his life making it clear to all and sundry that his work had been wildly misappropriated. He would, no doubt, have had a point. But, really, this serves only to underscore the point: Because we never know which of our ideas evil men will pick up, pointing to the presumed virtues of those ideas is futile. Hicks, the Huffington Post notes, had “openly expressed his anti-theistic views on Facebook,” and he had expressed “his distaste for religious beliefs, posting photos and quotes that mock religion.” Simultaneously, the Post records, he “used the page to argue in support of equality and free speech.” Is it not feasible — even if it was just for a moment — that the former took precedence over the latter? And if it is, what relevance can his support for gay marriage have? We do not find the accused innocent because they keep the right company.

Had Hicks been a conservative, we would by now have been subjected to an endless stream of half-baked thought pieces on the subject of “right-wing terrorism.” (Which topic, amusingly enough, was a favorite of Hicks’s.) Because he was not, the press has by and large managed to come to the right conclusion: namely, that we are dealing with a bad egg, and that, there being no critical mass of similar attacks, his politics did not matter much at all. Although the double-standard grates, this, in my view, is a blessing, and one that will save us a lot of useless partisan mud-throwing. Nevertheless, while insisting that Hicks is in no way indicative of those with whom he chose to associate, we might insist that we do not mistake one conclusion for another. It is certainly the case that the murderer was a bad man first, and a progressive atheist second. But progressive atheists can be bad men, too, and we should not permit Mrs. Hicks to pretend otherwise.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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