Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A few totally unsolicited thoughts on religion and terrorism

I was reading this New York Times article about Robert Dear this morning, and had some reactions. Things like: See how he gets a humanizing picture and a backstory? See how he's a "lone wolf", a crazy person, and not representative of an agenda? It was infuriating in several ways, but also illuminating of some trends in both violent action and reportage on it, and got me to thinking. Those thoughts quickly got lengthy, and so here we are.

There are a lot of things to think through here, but what struck me the most was the "lone wolf" treatment he gets--very similar to other shooters. Some people were attempting to call his actions terrorism, and to tie it to his religious convictions, which is important to examine, but also fraught. There was also a seemingly related sense among some Christians that their religion was being targeted, offensively, by the secular. I read so many comments claiming versions of these things.

Except that's bullshit, and spin. He's an extremist and a religious hypocrite with an agenda of destruction meant to scare people into changing the rules of society. That's textbook terrorism. Terrorism is not a thing done by brown people, or by Muslims, or by any group exclusively. It is a human tactic, one frequently linked to exclusionary ideologies. And we have to start really looking at terrorism, and terrorists, if we are going to change the current state of things.

Robert Dear is not alone. Within the U.S., anti-women and anti-Black agendas, in particular, have had a lot of proponents act lately--as individuals, mostly--in violent and deadly ways. Those acting on local (and typically, but not always, far-right) agendas within the U.S. do not see how their actions align them with Daesh and Islamist terrorism. Yet, the process is much the same.

Extremist religious proponents with aims at economic and/or political power espouse reactionary and potentially violent beliefs. They claim the actions of an Other bring negative judgment from Deity and that it's the duty of the believer to enforce Truth. The politicians and the media terrify and inflame members of the impoverished and confused, disenfranchised public. They particularly target able-bodied men, potential shock troops. They use their religious convictions and personal failings against them. They blame their struggles on a targetable Other. They direct their feelings of anger and revulsion toward those Others. Then they turn their backs on the wrecked lives of their own followers, claim credit for the carnage when it's convenient to their purposes (and deny it when it's not), and move on to the next objective.

The terrorized populace fears and hates the combined forces of religious extremism, partisan media, and political demagogues (entrenching the proposed antagonist relationship), and their own current and potential followers look at them with a combination of fear and awe. In the U.S. the three pillars overlap but maintain a hypothetical separation. That separation is eroded by a number of forces, which is a related tangent for another time. Under Daesh, it's all conveniently folded into one power block--religion and media and government all under one massive and terrifying umbrella. The combined forces of these messages allow them to stand in for deity, to speak for God. This is how terrorists are made.

It is not about religion, not really. Religion is an enabler, because of the intense level of emotion and the inherently irrational nature of belief. Some religions (and, probably not coincidentally, the most violence-prone) contain elements of dehumanization which make it easier. Misogynist, xenophobic and otherwise hierarchical messages within religious texts are ripe for exploitation. These elements are convenient for a propagandist, particularly one looking to motivate violence. That is not the fault of the religious, or even really of the religion. It is part of the complexity of faith, its containing of contradictions and ability to be manipulated for evil. Few beliefs run as deep as religious conviction. The deeply felt nature of religious belief, and the terrible experienced shame of falling short of one's convictions, is powerful and the combination is volatile.

True awe, a combination of wonder and fear at the power of something, is rare and lives very close to religious belief in our experience. That which can inspire awe will bring us back to our feelings about deity. An organization that can create awe by shocking you with their power over life and death in a chaotic and confusing world, while also reminding you--even forcing you--to experience regularly your deepest and most overwhelming religiously-inspired emotions, can make you into a crusader.

If you are a serial philanderer with a string of pregnancies in his wake, and a violent abuser of women with a proven disregard for them as a group, what is the effect of being told by Rush Limbaugh that only "sluts" want birth control? If you are a person with deeply-felt religious belief who keeps falling short of right behavior within it, what is the effect of being told by Donald Trump that sexual assault is inevitable if women and men are in close proximity? If you do not know how many pregnancies you may have created, or what has become of them, what is the effect of being told by Carly Fiorina that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts? And by Ted Cruz that Christians are being targeted for genocide? It might start to look like women can't be trusted, men must and will have sex by any means, babies are being slaughtered by irresponsible women, and there's a war on people of good faith.

This is how religious convictions are used to create killers.

None of this is meant to exonerate Dear or others like him. Nor is he more worthy of humanization than any other murderer and terrorist. However, all murderers and, yes, even terrorists are people first. No matter their crimes, and even if the species cannot abide their continued existence, there was a process that got them there. And if we are ever going to prevent these acts of violence and the process of hatred that motivates it, we have got to try to understand how it happens.