"Self-Radicalization" and Responsibility For Violence

Colorado Springs shooting suspect Robert Lewis Dear of North Carolina is seen in  undated photos provided by the El Paso Coun
Colorado Springs shooting suspect Robert Lewis Dear of North Carolina is seen in undated photos provided by the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. A gunman burst into a Planned Parenthood clinic Friday, Nov. 27, 2015 and opened fire, launching several gunbattles and an hourslong standoff with police as patients and staff took cover. By the time the shooter surrendered, at least three people were killed, including a police officer and at least nine others were wounded, authorities said. (El Paso County Sheriff's Office via AP)

After the December 1 San Bernardino attack by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik at a simple office holiday party, President Obama noted that the gunmen who carried out the bloodbath were "self-radicalized." It was not the first time the President had used the term: he also applied it to Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after the April 2013 Boston Marathon attacks. In response, Senator Ted Cruz lashed out at Obama for not using the term "radical Islamic terrorism." And while the Republican mantra after every mass shooting by a non-Muslim is "better mental health" (while trying to tear down Obamacare), the rhetoric changes to terror, not by a lonely lone wolf but by insidious people who spread an evil ideology to a significant proportion of one of the world's major religions, when a perpetrator is Muslim.

But there is a big question that remains unanswered in the mass shootings of the past several weeks: why does no one call Robert Louis Dear, Jr., the mass shooter of only the previous week at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, "self-radicalized," even when he announces his guilt and his putatively Christian motivation in court for all to hear?

Let's break this down into two parts. First, what is at stake in calling a perpetrator of violence a "self-radicalized terrorist"? For the President, it is absolutely critical to use this term to understand the autonomous nature of the shootings by Farook and Malik. By doing so, we do not lay blame on an entire religion, but only on the misinterpretation of it by independent operators (i.e., "the dark path of radicalization" that he discussed in his recent oval office speech). At least as important, we also do not fear that organized terror groups are operating across the country, taking direct orders from ISIS/ISIL/Daesh or Al Qaeda. The country is -- more or less -- safe, in other words. At the same time, however, everyone must be vigilant, because those who "self-radicalize" are rarely in direct contact with groups being constantly surveilled and monitored, and the public must expect them to be harder to catch.

Cruz's rhetoric intends to force the disruption of any remaining complacency by insisting that the term "self-radicalization" avoids pinning responsibility on the totality of the network that the perpetrators allegedly belong to, and also allows the President to avoid taking responsibility for hitting back hard. Both of these allegations are problematic -- the first slides into Trump rhetoric (which Cruz has not repudiated) that demonizes all Muslims; the second learns nothing from the past fifteen years of breeding more anti-Americanism by sending bombs, troops, and inept swagger abroad. But the selective use of the term "self-radicalized" for only Muslim perpetrators of violence, while avoiding using the term for Christian or other religious or non-religious perpetrators, is also wrong.

Dear was at least as "self-radicalized" as Farook and Malik. He apparently was also something of a loner who appropriated a violent -- this time "Christian" -- ideology, though many, many Christians would never identify it as such. His declaration in court -- that he was "a warrior" for babies, hews closely to the calls of right-wing Christians such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Pat Robertson. Yet, while some call his violence "domestic terrorism," others, namely most congressional Republicans, attempt to change the focus to the red herring of mental health.

Using the term "self-radicalized" in an equal opportunity manner, though, would draw our attention to the complex networks of Christian right-wing ideologies, not to mention previous murderers such as Timothy McVeigh. Certainly almost all who call themselves Christian condemn such violence, including most of those who oppose abortion rights. Yet, in turning the conversation about Dear to mental health alone, Senator Cruz is trying to maneuver out of any responsibility for calling to account those Christians who do advocate violence, putatively in the name of life. He is also closing his eyes to his own responsibility in promoting allegedly Christian values through inflammatory rhetoric while advocating more guns in the homes of (presumably only Christian) Americans on the campaign trail every day.

If we're going to talk about self-radicalized shooters, and it's unfortunate that we increasingly have to, we need to be egalitarian, and identify as "self-radicalized" all those disconnected individuals who commit mass murder in the name of Christianity, Islam, white power or any other ideology or creed. And the politicians in this country who are avoiding responsibility for their own violent rhetoric, perhaps especially those who use Christian language to do so, should be called out for their complicity in the increasing spiral of violence in our communities.