In the wee hours of the morning, a man with an immigrant background intent on transforming himself into a killer walked into a crowded gathering place, populated with people whom he did not know personally but whom he abhorred just for the group to which they belonged. The man, who had a connection to extremist religious groups that prioritize coreligionists over all others and advocate for blatantly racist and violent political actions, had a history of making discriminatory comments about the group he targeted. He had expressed public outrage at their actions, voicing a belief that what they did violated the morals and tenets of his own religion and that religious dictate required him to shun them. On that fateful early morning, the man walked into that place – one that symbolizes so well the country’s divide on social and political issues – carrying a semi-automatic assault rifle that he had legally procured. He took out his weapon and, firing into an unsuspecting crowd of hundreds that never in a thousand years would have imagined that this personal sanctuary would be the site of their last moments on Earth, killed dozens of people and wounded scores more. The killer himself did not survive his own carnage and was justifiably killed in a counter-assault aimed at halting the ongoing massacre.
How do we decide what factors are to blame for this truly horrific tragedy? As Max Fisher succinctly put it in the New York Times on Tuesday, “when a troubled young man murders dozens of people…how do we classify, and thereby make sense of, what he did?” Lots of it depends on one’s frame of reference. The description in the above paragraph is obviously referring to Omar Mateen, who mowed down 49 people on Sunday in Orlando at the gay nightclub Pulse. But it just as easily refers to Baruch Goldstein, who walked into the mosque section of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on Purim morning in 1994 and killed 29 worshippers at morning prayers. Most people would have similar reactions to these two acts, but many wouldn’t, and the question is whether our own biases and sympathies lead us astray in thinking about terrorism and what is behind it.
For starters, it seems clear that both Mateen and Goldstein perpetrated acts of religiously motivated terrorism. Both men had links to, or at the very least declared an allegiance to, a group that carries out violence in the name of religion. I don’t mean to equate ISIS with the Kahane movement, since they are miles apart in terms of ideology, purpose, brutality, and tactics. It’s like comparing Anna Netrebko singing at the Met to a cat mewling in an alley. But both groups instrumentalize religion for political purposes, and it raises difficult questions as to how to think about the role of religion in violence. If someone commits an act of terrorism, designed to inflict mass casualties and send a larger message, and he does so out of religious fervor, no matter how misguided that fervor may be, it should not be controversial to link the act to the ideology behind it. It beggars belief to insist that religion had absolutely no bearing on Mateen’s motivation whatsoever and it is just a coincidence or a red herring or a cover for other more salient motivations, and we should be willing to heap the same scorn on those who separate Goldstein from Judaism entirely. Referring to “radical Islam” or “radical Islamism” when discussing Mateen won’t do a thing to solve the actual problem, no matter how much Donald Trump may claim to the contrary, but to contort oneself into knots to deny what appears to be plainly obvious recalls George Orwell’s famous aphorism that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
Equally clear should be that to tie either Mateen or Goldstein to religious motivation is not to disparage the entire religion itself. All religions simultaneously contain good and bad, with acts of monumental charity and monstrous barbarity perpetrated in their names constantly. That one sick, twisted individual or even thousands of sick, twisted individuals kill in service of a religion proves nothing. It does not mean that the religion’s faithful are all terrorists in waiting, but simply means that the terrorists who kill in its name are using the religion to justify the unjustifiable. Religion gives rise to terrible ideologies that cloak themselves in the mantle of faith and God, but it is foolish absent evidence to the contrary to assume that the parasite has fully consumed the host. Many are quick to point to Mateen’s connection to Islam as representative of Islam writ large, and I vigorously disagree with it but I understand where it comes from, given how many terrorist attacks are committed in Islam’s name. We can run multivariate regressions all day that demonstrate that Islam is statistically insignificant compared to poverty, political repression, and all sorts of other factors when it comes to terrorism, but it seems to belie common sense. Also belying common sense is to then blanketly insist that Islam is synonymous with violence, rather than understanding that we live in a time when Islam is employed for violence more than other religions, as Christianity was employed for violence more than other religions during the Middle Ages (as Jews know full well). The fact that American Jews would never tolerate being tarred by Goldstein’s brush is precisely why it is so important to maintain the same standards with other religions, even when Jewish terrorism is a drop in the bucket compared to Muslim terrorism.
Goldstein killed a group of Muslims for the crime of being Muslim. Mateen killed a group of gays for being gay. In Tel Aviv last week, two Palestinians killed a group of Israelis for being Israeli. There are complex factors and wider contexts involved in all of these cases, but it would be foolish to ignore some of them for political reasons. Acknowledging that there are uncomfortable truths at work does not justify any of these acts of terrorism in any way. Terrorism and killing innocents is wrong no matter the reason and no matter the perpetrator. People should not be afraid of complexity, and when we give in to the temptation of turning everything into a black and white political issue that prioritizes ideology over the struggle for truth, we set ourselves up for a generation of leaders who prioritize sound bites over substance, platitudes over policy, and division over discourse.