Christian terrorism

During our person-on-the-street interviews last week, in which we asked if people felt safe at public events in Reno, a couple of residents told us they didn’t think Reno was on the radar of those who seek to do us harm. We rather agree, but then we suspect the people of Colorado Springs and San Bernardino would have said much the same thing a couple of weeks ago.

Also last week, Hillary Clinton was in town, fresh off the debate in which she resisted using the term “Islamic terrorism” and took grief for it from the loon right.

One of the bits of knowledge that came out of news coverage of San Bernardino was the fact that mass killings, when defined as four or more deaths in a single incident, have been happening once a day in the United States for many years. The New York Times reported that these events are not increasing, which is the impression we could easily get from the white hot news coverage. Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox told the Times “the only increase has been in fear, and in the perception of an increase. A lot of that has been because of the nature of media coverage. In the ’70s and ’80s we didn’t hear about it on the internet, because there was no internet, and we didn’t have cable news channels that would devote 24 hours of coverage.”

But while the number of such incidents is not growing, that does not mean their routine nature in this country is not unusual. As President Obama put it, “We should never think that this is something that just happens in the course of events, because it doesn’t happen with the same frequency in other countries.” And it would be well for those of us in journalism to reflect on whether repetitious coverage has a role in generating copycats.

In looking at violence in the U.S., both in mass killings and in political killings, religion often plays a role. Some believe they are doing God’s work.

Timothy McVeigh was bewitched by the Branch Davidians. Rev. Paul Jennings Hill killed an abortion provider and his bodyguard. The Dylann Roof murders at an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Klansman Frazier Glenn Cross’s killings of several Kansas Jews, Scott Roeder’s murder of a Kansas abortion provider, Wade Michael Page’s massacre at a Wisconsin Sikh temple, Jim David Adkisson’s murders at a Tennessee Unitarian Universalist Church children’s play—it goes on and on. One wonders whether Muslims in other nations can help but consider the United States and its Christians to be a murderous people. Should we, given our history of violence, be described by a term like “Christian terrorism”?

Using “Islamic” as a modifier of terrorism is a little like using Christian as a modifier for terrorism if you’re discussing Paul Jennings Hill. It suggests an endorsement of that stance by the faith. It’s basically sloppy thinking to score cheap political points.

“Terrorism by Muslims” is not the same thing as “Islamic terrorism.” How many Christians would want to be defined by Dylann Roof? Islam makes up slightly less than a fourth of the planet’s population. Muslims are the majority in 46 countries. Most Muslims, like most Christians, live simple, ordinary, unobjectionable lives remote from the stereotype with which they are branded.