The Diction of Mass Murder

Very obviously, we have every reason to fear Islamic extremists who may wish to replicate a large-scale attack on the U.S. comparable in scope to the 9/11 attacks, or perhaps even worse.

But the Islamic religion of the San Bernardino mass murderers has taken our attention completely away from the immediately preceding massacre at the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs—even though the scale of the two events and the ambiguous and volatile mix of religious, political, and personal motives for both of those shootings seem to me to make them much more similar to each other than the San Bernardino mass murder is to the 9/11 attacks.

Perhaps Donald Trump’s completely unrestrained xenophobia and his rhetoric of racial and religious exclusion are giving us some room to reconsider the rhetorical assumptions and the themes that are framing our responses to mass murders in this country. For a long time, commentators have noted the great differences in how we discuss and how we act in response to terrorist threats and to gun violence. The following selections taken from other blogs seem to me to suggest that the same sort of dichotomy may be framing our discussions of mass murders and other atrocities depending on what type of extremist commits them.

When it comes right down to it, it does not really matter why someone is spraying a crowded room with 100 rounds a minute. Everyone there will still be dead, wounded, or deeply traumatized even if they manage somehow to survive without a scratch. And no after-the-fact information about the shooter is likely to mitigate anyone’s profound sense of loss or the terrible, haunting sense of the absolute senselessness of it all.

In short, a credible response to these tragedies would seem to require our acknowledging and stripping away the ideological preconceptions and the highly charged partisan rhetoric that we have superimposed onto our discussions of them.



This from Juan Cole’s website:

1. White terrorists are called “gunmen.” What does that even mean? A person with a gun?  Wouldn’t that be, like, everyone in the US?  Other terrorists are called, like, “terrorists.”

2. White terrorists are “troubled loners.” Other terrorists are always suspected of being part of a global plot, even when they are obviously troubled loners.

3. Doing a study on the danger of white terrorists at the Department of Homeland Security will get you sidelined by angry white Congressmen. Doing studies on other kinds of terrorists is a guaranteed promotion.

4. The family of a white terrorist is interviewed, weeping as they wonder where he went wrong. The families of other terrorists are almost never interviewed.

5. White terrorists are part of a “fringe.” Other terrorists are apparently mainstream.

6. White terrorists are random events, like tornadoes. Other terrorists are long-running conspiracies.

7. White terrorists are never called “white.” But other terrorists are given ethnic affiliations.

8. Nobody thinks white terrorists are typical of white people. But other terrorists are considered paragons of their societies.

9. White terrorists are alcoholics, addicts or mentally ill. Other terrorists are apparently clean-living and perfectly sane.

10.  There is nothing you can do about white terrorists.  Gun control won’t stop them.  No policy you could make, no government program, could possibly have an impact on them.  But hundreds of billions of dollars must be spent on police and on the Department of Defense, and on TSA, which must virtually strip search 60 million people a year, to deal with other terrorists.



And this from abagond:

A Christian extremist is here defined as someone who commits acts of violence because of their Christian beliefs. It is the Christian counterpart to “Muslim extremist.”

The Western press is full of news of violence by “Muslim extremists” or “Islamic extremists”, but not by “Christian extremists”. The Economist website (according to Google in 2015) brings up “Islamic extremists” a hundred times more often than “Christian extremists.”

It is not because Christians all turn the other cheek, as Jesus advised. It is because Western reporters and leaders play to a largely Christian audience: violence by an out-group (Muslims) seems more threatening than that by an in-group (Christians).

Prejudiced thinking plays up the worst of an out-group and the best of an in-group. It also sees the people of an out-group as being all the same–-out-group homogeneity-–while those from the in-group are seen as individuals.

Muslims, therefore, are stereotyped according to the most violent among them. So the beheaders of ISIS, not the scholars of Al-Azhar University, come to represent over a billion people. Their violence is seen as a natural outgrowth of their religion. That picture of Muslims comes not from a careful reading of (cherry-picked) verses of the Koran, but from prejudiced in-group thinking.

Christians, meanwhile, are seen as individuals. Even when some are driven to violence by their religious beliefs, they are not seen as representative. They are often written off as nutcases. Christian violence is commonly not seen as “Christian,” even when it is. Homophobic hate crimes, for example, are not carried out by “Christian extremists,” but by “hateful” or “homophobic” individuals-–despite the applicable Bible verses.


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