There is no doubt that the press calculates its interest in killers’ backgrounds in a peculiarly inconsistent manner. Had the shooter been a Christian, a Republican, and a member of the NRA, we would today be hearing about the evident rise in “right-wing hatred.” Had he been an admirer of any of the many personae non gratae on whom America’s civil strife is typically blamed, MSNBC would by now have written an opera, and Markos Moulitsas would have begun work on a second volume of his preposterous little book. But two wrongs do not make a right, and there really is no need for those who are vexed by this double standard to inflict it upon innocent people on the other side. Atheism is not to blame; the killer is. Progressivism is not to blame; the killer is. Hopefully, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye will sleep well tonight.
Alas, to acknowledge this from the right is to invite a charge of hypocrisy. Not, of course, because conservatives tend to blame progressivism itself when a friend of the Left goes on a rampage, but because conservatives are generally worried by the problem of radical Islam and because, in consequence, they tend to make generalizations about the violence that it yields. This morning, Morehouse College’s Marc Lamont Hill joked on Twitter that he was “waiting for the atheist community to condemn this awful hate crime committed at UNC Chapel Hill,” and inquired wryly, “Is their silence complicity?” “Why,” he is effectively asking, “do you we reflexively dismiss the role of ideology today, when we worry elsewhere about radical Islamism and its effect on global violence? This, I’d venture, is an excellent question, and one that deserves a full answer.
Islam draws attention in our era not because its adherents tend to be brown-skinned or because it is easier to fear those who live abroad than those who live down the street, but because it is used so frequently as the justification for attacks around the world that its critics have begun to notice a pattern. In most cases, it is reasonable to acknowledge simultaneously that representatives of every philosophy will occasionally do something evil — maybe in the name of their philosophy, maybe not — and to contend that it is silly to blame that philosophy for the individual’s behavior. As far as we know, there is no more evidence that today’s killer is representative of atheism per se than that the man who opened fire at the Family Research Council was representative of the Southern Poverty Law Center or that Scott Roeder was representative of the pro-life cause. Further, there are no evident superstructures within atheism or the SPLC or the right-to-life movement that routinely condone mass murder, and nor are there many friends of those groups who would be willing to justify or to indulge the maniacs they have attracted. It seems reasonably clear that any lunatic can appropriate a cause or provide a name as his inspiration, and that, when he does, we should neither regard that lunatic’s behavior as indicative of the whole nor worry too much about repeat attacks. As I have written before — in defense of Right and Left — words do not pull triggers.