Turning Critics into Racists
My attention was directed to this article published by Teen Vogue, which purports to show that “White male” terrorists are more dangerous than other terrorists.
Alas, like most of its kind, this article is riddled with illogic and misleading accounting. I agree, of course, that we ought to be concerned about all sources of ideological terrorism in proportion to the threat they pose. I just don’t understand why we must make arguments this misleading about some of it. Let’s dig in and see if we can deduce what Teen Vogue (TV) intends.
What Teen Vogue Argues
We bemoan the failure to identify white people as terrorists, citing in support of this the horrific violence perpetrated by one Peter Selis, an under-employed mechanic under severe financial stress after two bankruptcies and recently bereft of his girlfriend; Selis was not found to have any affiliation with any activist organization, and made no statement of ideological intent. There was no evidence found of anything approaching a coherent plan to coerce government or the public by Selis’ act and some evidence to suggest he acted on impulse. Police stated at the time that they had “zero evidence” of racist or ideological motive, though there is some testimony that Selis told racist jokes. Selis most plausibly was a spree/rage killer exploiting a random opportunity after being invited to a party at which most of the available targets were minorities; the evidence is consistent with a finding (but not dispositive of it) that he may have preferred them as targets. http://lat.ms/2Eu34l0, http://bit.ly/2EwdQat, http://bit.ly/2EAeDaw
Selis is contrasted with the San Bernardino shooters, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who “were talking to each other about jihad and martyrdom,” for more than a year prior to the attack. “’We can see from our investigation that in late 2013, before there is a physical meeting of these two people [that] … they are communicating online, showing signs in that communication of their joint commitment to jihadism and to martyrdom.’” NBC, WashPo.
Farook and Malik (and a co-conspirator) planned the while to insure maximum impact upon the public, taking shooting practice, planning escape routes, swearing allegiance to ISIS, and committing themselves utterly to the cause of jihad which they expressly endorsed. They indubitably are properly considered terrorists because they told us they were ones in extensive writings and other communications in which they expressed highly detailed ideological motives and passionate, premeditated intent.
By the way, I don’t know who “immediately” jumped to the conclusion that the San Bernardino shooters were terrorists on the basis of racist or anti-Muslim animus, but it certainly wasn’t the authorities having jurisdiction over the case, who only came to the conclusion that ideology was relevant after an investigation of several months revealed the shooters’ extensive writings on the topic of their motives and allegiances. “‘It would be irresponsible and premature for me to call this terrorism,’ [SAC, FBI Field Office, LA, David] Bowdich said. ‘The FBI defines terrorism very specifically, and that is the big question for us, what is the motivation for this.’” Atlantic. Teen Vogue reports that the Malik/Farook attack was “immediately” labeled an act of terrorism without providing documentation of such beyond the word of Arsalan Iftikhar, whoever that is. But the authorities only after due deliberation attributed terroristic motives to Malik and Farook according to their own words.
Spree Killers are not Terrorists
These are importantly different categories of offenders, not least because unemployed mechanics don’t systematically recruit one another to duplicate their crimes, but ideas that transcend national borders and every other category of identity and allegiance cause people to join a more-or-less self-organizing effort to modify civilization. These categories deserve radically different policy responses and therefore should be recognized as distinct.
Indeed, the distinction is so important that it is codified in Federal law. Former Counsel for Domestic Terrorism at the US Department of Justice Thomas Brzozowski, says that “The notion that the government takes Islamic extremism more seriously than domestic terrorism is, frankly, not true.” HuffPo. But proving a case of terrorism requires a diagnosis of motive and intent and so is more difficult to try in court — a crime may not be charged as such, even if it is believed by prosecutors to be terrorism, for purely tactical reasons, to insure a conviction. Numerous other elements must also be proven to meet the definition in the Code and applying it indiscriminately “would open a Pandora’s box of problems” including threats to the civil rights of innocent citizens. Just Security.
Working the Numbers
Next, we argue that “Since 9/11, American citizens are seven times more likely to be killed by a right-wing extremist than a Muslim attacker.” Leaving aside that to achieve this account we have to ignore the murder of 3,000 people, we have failed to norm for population: If you’re 7 times as likely to be killed by half the population as by 1 percent of it, 1 percent of the population is 7 times as lethal as another half, per capita: 50 guys kill one guy each, and one guy kills 7 guys.
On the face of it, this is unlikely to be only coincidentally related to ideological commitments.
Who is a Terrorist?
But it’s actually worse than that, because Teen Vogue’s support for its “seven times” thesis is a Think Progress article featuring Robert Lewis Dear, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who believed the FBI had been tapping his phones for many years because of comments he had made on a radio call-in show, as an example of a “White, male terrorist” of the relevant kind.
Image: Robert Lewis Dear, CBS Denver
But due to Dear’s obvious mental derangement and a consensus of experts, he was adjudicated incompetent to stand trial.
He believes the FBI cuts holes in his clothes and leaves feathers in his home. That Robin Williams told a joke about President Obama, the “antichrist,” and committed suicide two weeks later. That President Obama will declare martial law and rebuild himself as the antichrist.
Those are just some of the “delusional beliefs” accused Colorado Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Lewis Dear shared with a detective who interviewed him after his November arrest.
Dear stated to officers and the media that the Planned Parenthood clinic where he tragically cut short the lives of three people and injured nine others was a target of convenience selected as his last stand in an imaginary war with the FBI; the benefit to his pro-life beliefs was incidental at best:
The accused Planned Parenthood shooter told a Denver television station Wednesday he impulsively attacked the Colorado Springs clinic nearly two months ago, because he believed federal agents were following him and “they wanted to start a war.”
“I felt like they were going to get me and so I am going to pick where I want to make my last stand,” Robert Lewis Dear Jr. told Denver-based CBS4. “And I picked Planned Parenthood because it’s murdering little babies.”
The Gazette (Colorado Springs) [Emphasis mine.]
Hardly a convincing example of an ideological terrorist to be compared against Malik and Farook, who planned their crimes as such for years — at least without taking on a definition of “terrorism” so elastic as to be without utility. Sometimes a deranged maniac is just a deranged maniac, and so I have little confidence that the offender population of “White, male” terrorists offered in these articles is reliably diagnostic.
Let’s Do the Math
“Islam-inspired terror attacks “accounted for 50 fatalities over the past 13 and a half years.” Meanwhile, “right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities.”” (Think Progress.)
Well, I couldn’t help but notice that that’s not “seven times,” but five times — but “seven” is the word in Teen Vogue’s link and Think Progress’s headline. I can’t find anything in the Think Progress article to suggest that they actually mean us to refer to any other numbers than these, though.
But let’s go ahead and account for the offender populations, taking Think Progress’s numbers as valid. If you remember how to “cross-multiply and divide,” it’s trivial to norm this to demographics.
According to Pew as of 2017, there are about 3.45 million Muslims in the United States, with its official population of 323 million in the same year, 77% of which are “White alone” according to the Census Bureau. Muslims are near enough 1%, for easy figuring (we’re not writing for academic publication here; we’re just trying to get close enough to reality to make a point that can actually withstand scrutiny).
So 1% of the population caused 50 fatalities, or 50 fatalities per 1%; 77% of the population caused 254, or 3.2 per 1%. On this account, Muslim terrorists are fifteen times as lethal, per capita, as the group to which they’re being compared — and that latter group’s membership is questionable, at best.
Unfortunately, Teen Vogue does not explicitly list which Muslim offenders its analysis might also be based on, but the only ones it identifies specifically are admitted jihadists adjudicated to be terrorists, so I’m operating on the assumption that it had accurately identified the relevant offender population. (Not that this article gives me a lot of confidence in its reporting ability.)
According to other reporting, if we compare apples to apples, ideologically-motivated terrorists to ideologically-motivated terrorists, the ratio of lethality is just about 25 to 1, per capita, favoring Islamists. This is not a trivial margin, and it is not a coincidence — and to be clear, it could change at any time, which would prove nothing about the relationship of motive and behavior.
And the ratio is only that low if we include the worst mass shooting in history, perpetrated by Steven Paddock, whose ideological commitments and goals, if any, are not known. Leave him out as a spree-killer but not a terrorist, and the ratio is roughly 50 to 1 per capita (if we ignore 9/11, of course).
Let’s make that plain by re-labeling a certain well-circulated New York Times infographic:
Normed for population, the New York Times article from which I sourced the infographic, of course, like Think Progress and Teen Vogue, has reported the data to imply exactly the opposite of what they mean about the relative lethality of different offender populations at this moment in history. 1% of the population is as lethal as another 99%, making that 1% a hundred times as lethal per capita, on The NY Times’ analysis. Amazingly, they seem to have overlooked the import of this. NYT.
Not to mention that we do not in fact ignore the motives of white terrorists. If we did, there would not be some of the data that Teen Vogue relies on when it identifies Dylan Roof and James Harris Jackson as relevant “white, male” terrorists! So the entire thesis is false from the outset according to the article’s own content.
What Does It All Mean?
So to put it mildly, in order to sustain the implication of this article that white nationalists are more dangerous than Islamist extremists and we fail to identify them for what they are (or don’t have sufficient reason for doing so), we have to ignore some fairly consequential evidence and perform some frankly acrobatic statistics. Leaving aside whether we are properly focusing on “White, male” “terrorists” in a sample population that arguably shouldn’t contain some of its members, we can sustain the view that white male terrorists are more dangerous only because they are massively more numerous — about 60 to 80 times more, depending on definitions — and there’s a whole ‘nother 20% of the population that we haven’t even talked about.
Rather, the data are consistent with the view that whatever it is that motivates white, male terrorists is in recent history far less motivating (and/or motivating to far less lethality) that whatever it is that motivates Muslim extremists.
So what are we to make of this tendentious logical and mathematical disaster? The worrisomeness of Islamist terror is pointedly downplayed while the dangerousness of another class of terrorists is amplified at some effort. There must be some reason. What could it be?
First of all, I grant that white, male terrorists are vastly more numerous in the United States than their Islamist or jihadist counterparts and all else being equal can thus be expected to commit more crimes, and given that they commit the crimes they do they deserve what concern they deserve. But something seems very strange to me about this very strained and frankly illogical effort to downplay Islamic terrorists as unimportant by comparison to white, male terrorism’s threat, given their vastly different lethalities, which seem so self-evident as to deserve little more than mere acknowledgement.
Which brings us, of course, to “Islamophobia.”
Motive is not Race
Teen Vogue opines:
We can not and should not dismiss any prejudiced motive because, by fact, the most common and most lethal form of domestic terrorism…
As we’ve already shown, this is straightforwardly false according to Teen Vogue’s own data. “White, male” terrorism is more common because white males are more numerous and some of them are terrorists — but it is hugely less lethal. Islamic terrorism in the U.S. is somewhere between 15 and 50 times as lethal (assuming the NYT’s non-Islamist extremists fit the whole population’s demographics) as other forms of American terror on a per-offender basis, depending on where we draw our boundary conditions and how we select our offender populations. This could change at any time, but as of now it is what it is, and I see no reason to say otherwise.
So I infer that the clear purpose of the Teen Vogue article (and the NY Times piece, and the Think Progress post and indeed this whole “genre” of liberal-tending reporting) is to distract us from the dangerousness of Islamic terrorists in favor of a different offender population which proportionately, in fact, deserves vastly less concern.
Why? Because it
…isn’t carried out by brown-skinned Islamic jihadists. [Emphasis mine.]
And there we have it. Acknowledging the motives of Islamic terrorists, purportedly, has something to do with their being “brown-skinned.” Therefore if we admit the ideology that they themselves often passionately endorse, we’re racists.
Racism being just about the most damning allegation short of the outright criminal that can be brought against a member of modern American polite society, even if this is not a deliberate effort to make discussions of the ideology of Islamist terrorists taboo, it has that effect nonetheless, because it opens up anyone admitting a relationship between Islam and terrorism to being damned as a racist. We can’t admit what Islamist terrorists say about themselves and their motives without being considered racists.
Turning Ideological Awareness into Bigotry
This is incoherent gibberish. Islamism is not a race. And if we define it as such for the purposes of making it a protected class of ideas, all bets are off. Words have no meaning if memeplexes can be granted human rights to be immune from discrimination.
This is Luke Ritter, a red-bearded white guy from Burkenhead, England. He lied to his parents about leaving home to join the French Foreign Legion and instead enlisted with ISIS; he was subsequently killed defending the faith in Raqqa.
Image source: The Guardian.
Islam is not “brown-skinned,” and neither are “Muslims.” Teen Vogue, though, is endorsing a set of equivalencies between these categories that are wholly nonsensical and incoherent — straightforwardly false, actually.
Injecting some Nuance into Categorization
Of course, not all Muslims endorse every idea that can be considered “Islamic,” and not all Muslims endorse all the ideas they do endorse with equal fervor. And to be Muslim is not to be Islam: people deserve not to be prejudged, but ideas must remain available to analysis because they have consequences beyond the persons holding them.
Therefore we ought not to assume that a Muslim is a terrorist only because some Muslims are terrorists, any more than we ought to assume that any white people are terrorists just because some white people are.
But to the extent that people have the consequential ideas that they do have — and indeed themselves espouse — to pretend otherwise is simply dishonest, if not delusional. And if we don’t admit what they actually believe, to the extent that what they believe drives behaviors that deserve a policy response, our policy response is likely to be in error.
Ideas are not people. But beliefs do have consequences; therefore, to fully address the consequences, we have to be able to talk about the ideas. Talking about the ideas is not identical with prejudice against the people who endorse them, and therefore one who criticizes the ideas is not (necessarily) a racist.
We Don’t Have to Weaponize the Language
So I fully reject these efforts to manipulate the language and the data to locate ideas beyond the pale of critical discussion, because they would make it impossible to have a full and frank conversation about some of the most consequential problems in our world.
And it doesn’t have to be this way.
I believe that normal adults are sophisticated enough to hold these two ideas in mind at the same time: 1) Most white people are peaceable, responsible world citizens just as aghast at the horrors of ethnonationalist terrorism as anyone else, 2) but the ones who are not, are not.
Why is that any less controversial than the following?
I believe that normal adults are sophisticated enough to hold these two ideas in mind at the same time: 1) Most Muslims are peaceable, responsible world citizens just as aghast at the horrors of Islamic terrorism as anyone else, 2) but the ones who are not, are not.
It is therefore unnecessary to weaponize the language and manipulate the facts in the way of the Teen Vogue article, and we disrespect the intelligence of the public if we act as though they can’t make this distinction. So to those who don’t make it, suggest that they should.
And there is nothing more racist or dishonest about acknowledging the motives and goals of Muslim terrorists, brown or not, than there is about acknowledging the motives and goals of white ethnonationalists. In that case, it’s not the “white” that’s the problem, it’s the ethnonationalism! You are not a racist against white people if you condemn ethnonationalism, so if they are what they are, then they are what they are and there’s nothing wrong with saying so. Indeed, we must say so, or we immunize problematical ideas from recognition and criticism — including white ethnonationalism.
In exactly the same way, you are not a racist against “brown-skinned” people if you condemn Islamic terrorism.
We want not to be bigots, but calling someone a terrorist who self-identifies as a terrorist and meets the definition in the Code is not racist or prejudgmental but factual — and it’s an extremely consequential fact at that, which we ignore at our manifest peril.
So just call things what they are, m’kay? And don’t lie about numbers, because numbers don’t lie, so you’ll always get caught.