On August 12, 2017, white Christian terrorist, James Fields Jr, drove his car into a crowd of peaceful, anti-hate protestors in Charlottesville, VA, killing a young woman and injuring nineteen. Fields had driven from Ohio to join his fellow white Christian terrorists—aka, “white supremacists,” “neo-Nazis,” “KKK,” “segregationists,” “extremists,” “neo-Confederates,” “militia,” or “white nationalists.” Since calling them, “the alt-right” obscures their hatred and violence, let’s call these dangerous bigots by their real name, WHITE CHRISTIAN TERRORISTS!!!
Terrorists, by definition, commit acts on innocent people with the intent to instill fear.
While Fields surely intended to instill fear, his WHITE CHRISTIAN TERRORIST!!! friends did as well.
The WHITE CHRISTIAN TERRORISTS!!! who descended on Charlottesville gathered with the express purpose of instilling fear. Prior to the event, Mike Peinovich, a featured speaker at the rally, encouraged his comrades to bring guns to the protest. Articles in the neo-Nazi, alt-right website, The Daily Stormer, openly called for violence, repeatedly saying, “We want war.” The day before the rally, heavily-armed militia members patrolled Charlottesville’s streets; wearing camouflage and helmets, they carried assault weapons, handguns, spare magazines of ammo and knives. Gathering under the label, “Unite the Right,” the protestors carried torches reminiscent of the KKK, shouted racist and anti-Semitic slurs, and surrounded and attacked counter-protestors. Fear was effectively instilled. You don’t have to kill someone to be a terrorist.
Here’s what we know about Fields, and it’s not much. He is white. His mother, Samantha Bloom, attended Crossroads Church when they lived in Kentucky. Fields participated in a gathering of Vanguard America, whose aim is to achieve racial supremacy under white Christian rule. And he drove his car at a very high rate of speed into a crowd of innocent protestors.
I thus infer, WHITE CHRISTIAN TERRORIST!!!
But, you might object, I’ve too hastily inferred that he’s a Christian.
You might think that just because he’s white and grew up in “Christian America” and in a Christian home and associated with a “Christian” white supremacist group, it doesn’t follow that he’s a Christian.
And you might think that his actions were expressly and explicitly anti-Christian. That Christianity, rightly understood, forbids the killing of innocent people and commands love of the stranger and even of the enemy. No killer of innocents could rightly call his action, “Christian.”
Yet every time an olive-skinned man from a Muslim-majority country or community kills an innocent person, we immediately believe and label him a Muslim terrorist. Terrorist, for sure. But we are often sadly mistaken in our hasty inference of Muslim.
Just because someone is olive-skinned and, say, Arab and grew up in a Muslim home, it doesn’t follow that he’s a Muslim (someone who has fully submitted to Allah).
Moreover, terrorist actions are expressly and explicitly anti-Muslim. Islam, rightly understood, forbids the killing of innocent people, forbids the killing of fellow Muslims (99+% of the victims of radical jihadists are Muslims), and forbids compulsion in religion. No killer of innocents or fellow Muslims could rightly call his action, “Muslim.”
And neither should we (white, western, Christians).
I suspect that we will find out in the coming weeks that Fields was a loner who felt ostracized from his community. He found identity and solidarity within a group of new-found friends. His new-found friends both fed his sense of injustice in his world and encouraged his empowerment to redress these injustices, even through violence.
And I suspect that after seeing his brothers under attack, his increasing sense of outrage at the injustice and indignity of it all triggered a, from his twisted perspective, justified response. He quickly sprang to their defense, slamming his foot to the pedal and his car into people opposed to their righteous cause.
Both of my suspicions fit the profile of extremist jihadists. Religion is very low in their structure of motivation. Cultural isolation, sense of injustice and identity, and group cohesion are the primary motivators.
And now the hard part.
Why are we so quick to attribute religious motivations to olive-skinned, Middle Eastern terrorists but so slow to attribute it to white, American terrorists?
We are more like members of the alt-right than we are like citizens of Saudi Arabia. And we instinctively like and trust and cooperate with people who are like us and hate and fear and resist people who are not like us. We like and trust white people and we fear and distance ourselves from, say, Arabs. The bigotry we see in white supremacists lies deep inside of each one of us white, Christian Americans. And so we tend to give violence committed by white men a pass.
Here’s a test. Consider your reactions (a) when you are on an airplane and a big, white man stands up quickly and (b) when a bearded, turbaned man stands up. If in the former, you think nothing, but in the latter, your heart start beating faster and you start thinking how to take him down before he detonates his bomb, bigotry has instantly judged “friend” of the former and “enemy” of the latter.
At any rate, that’s what’s happened to me on any number of occasions. Yet I know that I am vastly more likely to be killed by a white person than by an olive-skinned person. White, American terrorists are considerably more dangerous than jihadists. But my heart tells me what my head denies—I am a bigot with an irrational fear of Arabs, Muslims, etc.
The horror of Charlottesville is not merely that an innocent woman was killed and nineteen people were injured. The horror of Charlottesville is also that in gleaming America, despite all its promise of liberty and equality, bigotry is alive and well and has been given permission to rear its ugly head in public. We can force the alt-right’s head back into its holes, but while that might make us less visible and honest bigots feel better about ourselves, the problem won’t have gone away. Every time fear moves our hearts, feet, jokes, judgments, smirks, sense of superiority, and votes, bigotry gains another foothold.
It will go away only with deep self-reflection, letting our heads and our faiths properly understood redirect and retrain each one of our hearts.