National Security & Defense

Why We Worry about Islamist Violence and Not Progressive Atheist Violence

Craig Stephen Hicks in custody in Durham, N.C. (Sara D. Davis/Getty)
When does the ideology of a killer matter?

Three Muslims have been murdered by a white atheist — ostensibly over a parking dispute. The shooter, if his Facebook page is to be believed, was what one might term an “anti-theist progressive.” Among the public figures he admired were Rachel Maddow, Bill Nye the engineer, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Among the groups with which he identified were the Southern Poverty Law center, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the Huffington Post. Among those people he disliked were political conservatives, the devoutly religious, and fans of country music. This was not a man, let’s say, who is likely to have been friends with Ted Nugent.

And here’s the thing: None of this matters at all. Zip. Nada. Zilch.

There is no doubt that the press calculates its interest in killers’ backgrounds in a peculiarly inconsistent manner. Had the shooter been a Christian, a Republican, and a member of the NRA, we would today be hearing about the evident rise in “right-wing hatred.” Had he been an admirer of any of the many personae non gratae on whom America’s civil strife is typically blamed, MSNBC would by now have written an opera, and Markos Moulitsas would have begun work on a second volume of his preposterous little book. But two wrongs do not make a right, and there really is no need for those who are vexed by this double standard to inflict it upon innocent people on the other side. Atheism is not to blame; the killer is. Progressivism is not to blame; the killer is. Hopefully, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye will sleep well tonight.

Alas, to acknowledge this from the right is to invite a charge of hypocrisy. Not, of course, because conservatives tend to blame progressivism itself when a friend of the Left goes on a rampage, but because conservatives are generally worried by the problem of radical Islam and because, in consequence, they tend to make generalizations about the violence that it yields. This morning, Morehouse College’s Marc Lamont Hill joked on Twitter that he was “waiting for the atheist community to condemn this awful hate crime committed at UNC Chapel Hill,” and inquired wryly, “Is their silence complicity?” “Why,” he is effectively asking, “do we reflexively dismiss the role of ideology today, when we worry elsewhere about radical Islamism and its effect on global violence? This, I’d venture, is an excellent question, and one that deserves a full answer.

Islam draws attention in our era not because its adherents tend to be brown-skinned or because it is easier to fear those who live abroad than those who live down the street, but because it is used so frequently as the justification for attacks around the world that its critics have begun to notice a pattern. In most cases, it is reasonable to acknowledge simultaneously that representatives of every philosophy will occasionally do something evil — maybe in the name of their philosophy; maybe not — and to contend that it is silly to blame that philosophy for the individual’s behavior. As far as we know, there is no more evidence that today’s killer is representative of atheism per se than that the man who opened fire at the Family Research Council was representative of the Southern Poverty Law Center or that Scott Roeder was representative of the pro-life cause. Further, there are no evident superstructures within atheism or the SPLC or the right-to-life movement that routinely condone mass murder, and nor are there many friends of those groups who would be willing to justify or to indulge the maniacs they have attracted. It seems reasonably clear that any lunatic can appropriate a cause or provide a name as his inspiration, and that, when he does, we should neither regard that lunatic’s behavior as indicative of the whole nor worry too much about repeat attacks. As I have written before — in defense of Right and Left — words do not pull triggers.

This instinct, however, has its limitations, for it is one thing to acknowledge that one swallow does not make a summer, and quite another to insist that it is not summer when the whole flock is overhead. Individual acts should be taken as such, of course. But when the same names pop up over and over and over again it is fair for us to connect the dots. To wonder why conservatives worry about Islam specifically — and not, say, about atheism or progressivism or the Tea Party or the Westboro Baptist Church — is to ignore that Islam is so often deployed to rationalize violence around the world that it makes sense for them to ask more questions. An inquiry into the violent tendencies of contemporary atheists is likely to reach a dead end. An inquiry into modern Islam, by contrast, is not. Can anybody say with a straight face that it is irrational to wonder whether there is something inherent in present-day Islam that, at best, is attracting the crazy and the disenfranchised, and, at worst, actually requires savagery? I think not.

To comprehend this broader distinction — and to remove the “us vs. them” sting that discussions of Islam typically invite — we might take an example from closer to home. Imagine, if you will, how differently we would react to a lynching in 2015 than we would have in 1890. Should a white supremacist lynch a black man in Alabama tomorrow, we would of course be disgusted and appalled, and we would readily acknowledge that white supremacy was the cause — or, at least, that it was the excuse. But we would probably not be too concerned that the Klan was about to return, or that similar crimes were about to proliferate — or, for that matter, that its pernicious ideology was on the verge of a comeback. Instead, we would regard the culprit as a disgusting and painful outlier, and we would take comfort in the knowledge that he enjoyed little support.

In 1890, by contrast, our horror would necessarily have taken a graver form. Back then, lynchings were quotidian, and their practitioners were exponents of a wider and relatively popular ideology that, in many cases, was entrenched in law. When Ida Wells wrote that a “Winchester rifle deserved a place of honor in every Black home,” she was merely recognizing that southern blacks faced daily danger, and that, because those behind the peril enjoyed so much support, the authorities could not be trusted to protect the vulnerable. In 1890, it was reasonable for good people to fear the Klan and their friends, because the Klan and their friends were systematically and ideologically trying to kill Americans. On occasion, crimes against blacks may well have been unplanned or incidental. But nobody could blame observers who connected the two by default.

As we have learned in the last few decades, radical Islam — note the “radical” part — is similarly predisposed to hurt the West and its interests. Furthermore, its adherents enjoy far more support in the broader Muslim population than we are often led to believe. It is all very well for Lamont Hill and co. to sneer and to insinuate and to equivocate for their fans, but, alas, their aim is significantly off. The crucial difference between today’s killing and the routine killings that we see around the world is not that one murderer is familiar and the other is foreign. It is that the former is an outlier, and the latter is part of a critical mass. Of course people raise their eyebrows in one case and not the other. The swallows are flying in formation.

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

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