Here is a brief glimpse at one of the victims, a dental student, who made this video to raise money for a missions project:
The motives for the shooting remain undisclosed, but if they prove to be bound up with Hicks' anti-religious stance, then I think we need to keep two things in mind: First, Hicks' atheism is no more the reason for his violent attack than Islam is the reason for 9/11. In both cases, the problem lies with a kind of ideological targeting of people based on group membership. While Islam can be and has been invoked to underwrite that sort of us/them ideology, other things can be and have been invoked as well--including Christianity and atheism. This fact never justifies sweeping generalizations about the group and its members. In fact, falling prey to such sweeping generalizations is the first step towards embracing the very us/them ideology that is the root problem.
Second, if Hicks targeted his victims because they were Muslim, then we ought to take very seriously the idea that what he did should be called an act of terrorism. Islamophobic terrorism. And even if it isn't terrorism, the ideological patterns of thinking that underwrite terrorism may have played a role: It is easier to kill people if you first ascribe to an ideology that dehumanizes them.
What is terrorism? In my academic work on the subject, I've argued that it has to do with how victims of violence are targeted. Terrorists operate from an us/them ideology that sees every member of an enemy group as a legitimate target. Terrorists may select targets based on strategic or symbolic considerations, but they don't discriminate based on their innocence--because all members of the enemy group are seen as guilty, simply because they belong to that group.
Hence, no one in the targeted group is safe. That's why terrorism terrorizes. Being an American is enough to make you a legitimate target in the eyes of Al Qaeda extremists.
This way of viewing terrorism connect the dots between ideas and violence: If you embrace an ideology that divides the world between "us" and "them," and you portray all of them as collectively guilty, then you are laying the groundwork for terrorist violence. And violence that is done because of this sort of ideological motive is different in kind from violence done for, say, personal gain or jealous rage.
Among other things, those who kill because of allegiance to an ideology of hate are harder to deter. If you see yourself as an agent of the Children of Light fighting a war against the Children of Darkness, you may be perfectly happy to sacrifice yourself for the cause. Threats of punishment won't hold you back.
And that's why the most chilling thing I read this morning wasn't the news report of the triple murder (although that surely chilled me deeply). Instead, it was a comment, posted on one of the websites recounting the TGI Friday's incident, that reads as follows:
We unfortunately MUST do to them that which they wish to do to us, all I wish to do is to work, provide a living for my family. worship how I wish, (or not) and enjoy life. THEY want CONTROL over my life and how I live. THEY want me to convert or die. THEY want to tell me what to wear, what to eat, and what to do everyday... They are like the current U.S. Government under Obama on Steroids. Lock and Load Real Americans.Notice here the universal imputation of nefarious motives, the repeated invocation of THEM. And then the call to arms: Lock and load. THEY are a threat to US. WE have no choice but to load our guns and shoot them down.
And to think this diatribe was sparked by the story of a woman who wanted her dietary restrictions respected, and instead had the forbidden food all but shoved down her throat.
Adherents to this kind of ideology know that members of their own group aren't all the same: they're normal human beings who want to live normal human lives, with diverse values and interests. They worship in different ways (or not at all). Some want to stand on a soapbox and spread their faith; others just want to eat at TGI Friday's without having bacon shoved into their drinking straw. But instead of seeing the same humanity and diversity in the other group, those in the grip of divisive ideologies offer a sweeping portrait of what "they" want. And what THEY want is so bad for us that we have no choice but to treat them in ways we would never treat members of our own group.
The philosopher John Ladd, in an essay that has strongly influenced my thinking, finds in Nazism a kind of template for violent ideologies: Such ideologies begin with what he calls the doctrine of bifurcation: the world is divided between the chosen group and the "other" group. They then move onto a doctrine of moral disqualification. The others are in some way rendered less than human: they aren't like us, and so can be legitimately treated in ways that we couldn't otherwise justify. But that's not enough. Another key tenet of these ideologies is the notion of a group mission: Our welfare is threatened by THEM, and so we must, to bring good and right back into the world, knock THEM down--marginalize, oppress, or destroy. Lock and load.
This is the sort of pattern of thinking that enables terrorists to ignore questions of guilt or innocence, and so target civilians. It is the pattern of thinking that feeds cycles of ideological hatred and violence. And were it isolated to a rare comment on an occasional blog post, we could set aside acts of violence like the triple murder in North Carolina as just the actions of a lunatic.
But when the lunatic is acting out the implications of a worldview that is repeatedly endorsed in the public sphere--when there is a subculture that repeats and disseminates and encourages this kind of thinking--the lunatic becomes more than a lunatic. The lunatic is the agent of a cause, and terrorism is the means of pursuing it. This is why our public leaders and intellectuals need to be so very careful about what they say and how they say it--because even those who don't believe in bifurcating the world into the good and the bad, the light and the dark, sometimes find themselves falling into rhetorical patterns and arguments that play into dangerous ideologies of the sort Ladd describes (as Sam Harris has done more than once).
We can't and shouldn't stifle free speech and free expression. But we can model modes of expression that encourage cooperation rather than division, that resist the urge to absolutize any group. And when hateful and ideological speech proliferates, we can counteract it with speech of our own, speech that calls it out for what it is and highlights its dangers.
The vast majority of atheists are well-meaning, decent human beings who care about humanity and disavow us/them ideologies. But sometimes, us/them tropes are invoked by influential atheist figures (who themselves denounce extremism) in ways that fuel subcultures of extremism. People are drawn to the seductive simplicity of a world where enlightened atheists are locked in a (metaphorical) war with the benighted religious fools who threaten the welfare of us all. They indulge this simple worldview, usually just with heated words and self-righteous diatribes. But when enough people begin to say "lock and load," eventually someone does just that. When someone does, we must recognize the depths of the problem--but we should resist the urge to absolutize atheists or attribute to all atheists the ideological motives of the extremists.
And, just to be clear, let me repeat the preceding paragraph with one small change: The vast majority of Muslims are well-meaning, decent human beings who care about humanity and disavow us/them ideologies. But sometimes, us/them tropes are invoked by influential Muslim figures (who themselves denounce extremism) in ways that fuel subcultures of extremism. People are drawn to the seductive simplicity of a world where enlightened Muslims are locked in a (metaphorical) war with the benighted unbelievers who threaten the welfare us all. They indulge this simple worldview, usually just with heated words and self-righteous diatribes. But when enough people begin to say "lock and load," eventually someone does just that. When someone does, we must recognize the depths of the problem--but we should resist the urge to absolutize Muslims or attribute to all Muslims the ideological motives of the extremists.
Or plug in "Christians," if you prefer.
We don't yet know what motivated the killings of three young Muslims in North Carolina the other day. We don't know why Craig Hicks gunned them down. But there is a pattern of thinking in place in this country--sometimes articulated by self-described atheists, sometimes by self-described Christians, sometimes by others--that treats all Muslims as a single unit, characterizing them as an enemy that threatens us all and against whom we must be prepared to take up arms. When someone follows that call and strikes out against innocent members of the group, it is terrorism. Islamophobic terrorism.
If Hicks isn't an Islamophobic terrorist in the sense described here--and he may well not be--then there are others out there who have been primed to be just that. Some use the mistreatment of a Muslim woman in a restaurant as the occasion for a call to arms against the "Muslim threat"--as if the fact that she was treated with disrespect is proof that her kind are poised to ruin our way of life.
We can't address the danger that such ideologically driven individuals pose by treating them as nothing but isolated lunatics. We need to pay attention to the way that the ideas we permit and nurture in the public square can fuel our potential for terrorist violence.