These are strange times, indeed, so I find myself having to say something here at the beginning that I don’t think I could ever have imagined uttering a long time ago: I am not writing this column in order to mock, disparage or make hay somehow of the shooting deaths of 26 people in Sutherland Springs in Wilson County. Nor am I dismissive of the heroism of the two people who chased down the murderer and shot him.
But we need to recognize a deep-running hypocrisy here, nowhere clearer than in the reactions of President Donald Trump. All his habits of reflexive bigotry and group blame whenever a foreign-born Muslim does something like this could be applied just as easily to white, native-born Christians.
It would be just as wrong, but somewhere in the irony of our president’s blurted responses, we might glimpse a flicker of something like a principle. Not his, of course.
Immediately after Sayfullo Saipov killed eight people with his vehicle in New York, President Trump was on the Twitter-waves calling for some new crackdown on immigration, doubtless every bit as unconstitutional as his previous efforts. But after Devin P. Kelly murdered the 26 souls in Texas, the president was mimicking a psychiatrist, saying something no real psychiatrist would ever say: “I think that mental health is your problem here.”
I could take 20 seconds and invent a theory for Saipov, an Uzbecki, and say he's probably crazy, too. As a native of a deeply Islamic country before coming here, maybe he couldn’t handle the religious freedom he found in America, wasn’t up for our level of rough-and-tumble social give and take, flipped out and decided to become a jihadi. So mental health is your problem here.
I can take the same 20 seconds and come up with a theory by which we need to greatly tighten national laws controlling the free movement and continued presence of white Christians in our land. By this two-bit theory, white Christians would be enmeshed in an insidious conspiracy to undermine the nation by stockpiling firearms while openly espousing armed resistance to legal authority.
The central tenet in Christian gun worship, I could argue, is a belief that the authority of the government is illegitimate, that right-thinking individuals must never extend basic moral trust to the government and must be prepared physically and morally to shoot and kill its agents. Worse, even deeper than that, I could argue, is a primitive mistrust of civilization itself.
Oh, I’m just warming up. I’m not saying anything true, of course, about all white Christians. Even if any of what I say happens to be a little bit true of certain individual white Christian Americans, you and I understand, I am sure, how stupid and vile it would be to smear all white Christians with these generalizations. But I go on anyway.
The basis of modern civilization is a social and moral compact explicitly laid out by our foundational philosophers — the likes of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 17th and 18th centuries, Max Weber in the 20th century. They established that in a civilized society, the power of violence must reside exclusively in the state. In a democracy, we have every right and a duty to vote out a bad regime, but we have no right to take up arms against it, unless …
Unless we are engaged in revolution — or, as the state would see it, treason. So the idea that people have some right to own and stockpile guns against the state is just that — revolution or treason, depending on who’s giving it a name.
I’m sure you see how far down the road I’m trying to inveigle you to come with me. Another furlong or two, and I think we will have whipped up a fine little theory that puts white, Christian gun owners at the center of a treasonous anti-American conspiracy. And once there, it should be less than a hop, skip and a jump to get to some kind of mass slur calling for all of them to be locked up, very much like the kinds of things our president likes to say about foreign-born non-Christians whenever he spies an opening.
In fact, what stops me from going all the way? Why stop within our own country? Why not start with Anders Behring Breivik, a right-wing white man who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011? I could extend my theory to all white people everywhere. Well, part of what stops me is those two guys who ran down the killer in Sutherland Springs.
The young, handsome guy with the tattoos on his neck didn’t have a gun, yet he drove hell-bent for leather after a fiend who was armed with a mass-murder machine. The older, white-haired dude who went with him, who had a gun and apparently did shoot the killer, has been on TV saying he was scared to death the whole time and doesn’t want to be called a hero.
I see something wonderful in both of them, and, yes, it happens to be something particularly Texas, and, yes again, it has to do with not waiting around for the government to take care of your problems for you. Life is sure complicated, isn’t it?
But listen — life can be just as complicated, can it not, when we look thoughtfully at those people Trump keeps slandering with cheap generalizations. Dallas is home to a large, flourishing, generally affluent Muslim immigrant population, so these are people I run into often. I see a lot of deeply religious and observant people — not all of them, but many — who are trying to shield their children from the scariest corruptions of American popular culture.
No, they don’t want their kids to be drunks or dope addicts. No, they don’t want their daughters to be raped or their sons to be rapists. And, yes, they do put their faith in Islam, the faith to which they were born, hoping its teachings will serve to guard their children from horrific destinies. So are they un-American? Is any resistance at all to the worst excesses of the culture an anti-American treason?
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And here’s another thing that stops me: It is not not true that we are threatened by terrorism. Our nation, like all of Western civilization, is threatened by racist enemies of freedom, liberty and enlightenment. Their beliefs are at least as inimical to the core beliefs of our culture as were the beliefs of the Nazis. We must resist and defeat them for the same reason.
But slurring huge groups with bigotry and group-shaming people are exactly the kinds of thing the terrorists do. It’s how they think. It’s what they are. It’s not what we are or what we stand for.
When Trump leaps to slur huge groups — entire nationalities and religions — for the heinous sins of individuals, he puts himself on the same side of the line with the heinous ones. He stands outside the boundaries of Western civilization. He stands with the terrorists.
Tilt the picture just a little bit. Imagine what he’s saying about Muslims and the foreign-born, and then picture it just a little bit differently, as if it were not about the people of Uzbekistan but about the people of Sutherland Springs. See how easily it could be done? If one size fits all, then one size fits you and me. And does that not help you and me see the evil?