One crime was committed by a person motivated by no cause or political interest and driven only by personal demons. Another crime was committed by two people whose actions were clearly driven by their religious and political beliefs. Under these circumstances, which of these terrible tragedies do you think would be considered an incident that could only be properly understood as something that ought to spur the nation to specific political actions?
If you answered the latter, you clearly know nothing about our political culture.
The former is, of course, the Newtown massacre in which a crazed, lone gunman murdered 20 1st-graders and six teachers at a Connecticut elementary school. The latter is the Boston Marathon bombing that took the lives of three spectators and wounded nearly 200, to which the toll of one police officer murdered and another wounded during the manhunt for the terrorists must be added. Though the first was a random act of personal madness and the second was just the latest in a long string of terrorist acts motivated by Islamist hatred for the West and America, there has never been any doubt about which of the two our chattering classes would consider as having undeniable political consequences and which would be treated as an unknowable crime about which intelligent persons ought not to think too deeply.
We can debate the rights and wrongs of restrictions on gun ownership or calls for more background checks. But the desire to use public grief about Newtown to push for passage of these measures was not rooted in any direct connection between the crime and legislation. Yet almost immediately Newtown was treated as an event with obvious political consequences. Indeed, the desire by gun rights advocates to speak of the issue outside of the context of Newtown was treated as both inherently illegitimate and morally obtuse.
But the reaction to Boston has been very different. Once it became apparent that the perpetrators were “white Americans”—in the memorable phrase employed by Salon.com—but could not be connected to the Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh or any other conservative faction or cause, most liberals have taken it as their duty to squelch any effort to draw the sort of conclusions to which they had almost universally rushed when blood was shed in Newtown. Many in our chattering classes who thought it was patently obvious that the actions of a lunatic should be blamed on the weapons he employed in Connecticut seem deathly afraid of what will happen if we discuss the actual motives of the Boston terrorists.
Because while they consider anything fair game if it can help restrict gun ownership, they are just as eager to avoid any conclusion that might cause Americans to link terrorists with the religious ideology that led them to kill. For them the fear that this will lead to a general wave of prejudice against all Muslims justifies treating a crime that can only be properly understood in the context of the general struggle against radical Islam as if it were as motiveless as Newtown.
In the last week we have been offered all sorts of explanation for the behavior of the Tsarnaev brothers except the obvious answer. Talking heads on MSNBC and elsewhere have condemned any effort to focus on political Islam in spite of the growing body of evidence that points to their faith as being the cause of their decision to commit mayhem. Even a normally sober commentator such as the New York Times’s Frank Bruni sought to downplay the religious angle, preferring to diffuse our outrage as well as our comprehension of the event and the many other attacks carried out by adherents of radical Islam:
Terrorism isn’t a scourge we Americans alone endure, and it’s seldom about any one thing, or any two things.
Our insistence on patterns and commonalities and some kind of understanding assumes coherence to the massacres, rationality. But the difference between the aimless, alienated young men who do not plant bombs or open fire on unsuspecting crowds — which is the vast majority of them — and those who do is less likely to be some discrete radicalization process that we can diagram and eradicate than a dose, sometimes a heavy one, of pure madness. And there’s no easy antidote to that. No amulet against it.
Bruni is right that there’s no magic bullet or counter-terrorist tactic that will ensure terrorists won’t succeed. He’s also right to shoot down, as he rightly does, those on the far left who have sought to “connect the dots” between American foreign policy (Iraq, Afghanistan and support for Israel) and treat them as justified blowback in which Americans are reaping what they have sown. But while such reactions are despicable, they are largely confined to the fever swamps of our national life.
Far more destructive is this mystifying impulse to look away from the war Islamists have been waging on the West for a generation. While the “radicalization process” to which he refers is not uniform, there is a clear pattern here. The roots of the atrocity in Boston are in the beliefs of radical imams who have helped guide young Muslims to violence around the globe.
To point this out is not an indictment of all Muslims, the majority of whom in this country are loyal, hardworking and peaceful citizens. But the myths about a post-9/11 backlash against Muslims that the media has helped foster—and which continue to be unconnected to any actual evidence of a wave of a prejudice or violence—has led to a situation where some think it better to ignore the evidence about the Tsarnaevs or to focus on peripheral details—such as Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s failed boxing career—than to address the real problem. The fear of Islamophobia is so great that it has spawned a different kind of backlash in which any mention of Islam in this context is wrongly treated as an indication of prejudice.
The contrast between the political exploitation of Newtown and the way in which the same media outlets have gone out of their way to avoid drawing the obvious conclusions about Boston could not be greater. In one case, the media helped orchestrate a national discussion in which hyper-emotional rhetoric about the fallen drove a political agenda. In the other, they are seeking to ensure that no conclusions—even those that are self-evident—be drawn under any circumstances.
Gun control advocates claim that new laws—even those seemingly unconnected to the circumstances of Newtown—are worth it if it will save even one life. That’s debatable, but the same venues that have promoted that view seem averse to any discussion of political Islam, even though it is obvious that more intelligence efforts aimed at routing out radical Islamists and scrutiny of venues and websites where they gather might save even more lives. In the universe of the liberal media, promoting fear of future Newtowns is legitimate and even necessary, but thinking about how to stop future terror attacks apparently is not if it leads us to think about the Islamist threat.