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Terrorism, Religion and the Media: When's the Last Time You Read the Phrase "Christian Extremism"? (News Analysis)

By Gar Smith
Thursday April 25, 2013 - 03:17:00 PM

When it comes to terrorism and religion, white guys tend to get a pass. But should a terror suspect hail from an Islamic background – be they foreigners, exchange students, or US citizens — their religious beliefs routinely become a major focus of media coverage. 

In the recent case of the Boston Marathon bombers, as soon as the Tsarnaev brothers were identified as key suspects, the question of their religious beliefs (and possible jihadist motivations) became an obligatory part of the daily news feed. 

The Wall Street Journal reported both brothers had "a growing interest in religion." CNN quoted Tamerlan Tsarnaev's mother recalling how her son "got involved with religion." The New York Daily News declared that the Tsarnaev brothers "became more religious, radical" after Tamerlan's latest visit with his family in Russia and quoted an acquaintance who claimed Tamerlan "returned a radically different man." The Christian Science Monitor wondered aloud: "Did a Foreign Hand Guide Boston Bomber Tamerlan Tsanaev?" By April 21, media outlets had taken to describing Tamerlan as the "Boston jihadist." 

London's Daily Mail reported that Tamerlan had been booted from his mosque and posted the alarming news that the FBI was hunting a "mysterious religious leader who 'brainwashed' him." The Business Insider checked Dzhokhar's Facebook page and trumpeted the disclosure that he had posted the note: "My religion is Islam." 

Russia Today offered a rare note of counterbalance, citing a relative who insisted "Tamerlan was not a religious fanatic." A report in Atlantic Wire also offered an assessment from relatives in Russia that "the boys aren't/weren't religious." 

So if this is the sort of press obsession that informs coverage of a terrorist act by a perceived "other," what is the focus of media reporting when the terrorist is seen as a mainstream, guy-next-door (read: "white")? 

A look at media coverage of several major mass-killings of the recent past provides an answer. The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the Columbine school killings, the Aurora movie theater rampage and the Sandy Hook school murders were all committed by white men and boys. With that in mind, let's revisit the media's coverage of these tragedies and see how the issue of religion was handled. 

The Oklahoma City Bombers 

In press reports at the time, Timothy McVeigh, the mastermind of the Murrah Federal Building bombing, was generally described as a former US Army sergeant. His religion was never an issue. It turns out, McVeigh was raised a Roman Catholic and confirmed in the Good Shepherd Church in Pendleton, New York. The day before his execution, he wrote a letter declaring himself an agnostic but, just before his execution, McVeigh asked to take the Catholic sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. 

McVeigh wasn't motivated by religion. He was driven by rightwing, anti-government politics. He grew to distrust the federal government after the FBI opened fire on the wilderness cabin of anti-government survivalist Randy Weaver and his family, killing Weaver's wife and son. McVeigh was further alienated by the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms siege of the Branch Davidian church in Waco, Texas. The ATF's 51-day siege ended on April 19, 1993 with an assault that left the compound engulfed in flames, leading to the deaths of 76 people, including 21 children. 

The massacre at Waco (arguably an act of "state-sponsored terrorism" on the part of federal officials) was the motivation for McVeigh's Oklahoma City bombing. He even timed his explsion to bring down the government building on the second anniversary of the US massacre at Waco. 

Other biographical information ignored by the press included the following: McVeigh was a registered Republican; he voted Libertarian in the 1996 presidential elections; and he was a proud member of the National Rifle Association. 

Terry Nichols, McVeigh's partner in crime, was found guilty of 161 counts of murder. Nichols' religious beliefs were not a matter of media concern until it came time for sentencing. At this point, Nichols' defense lawyers argued their client had undergone a jailhouse conversion to Christianity. (There was no discussion of what religious beliefs, if any, Nichols had prior to his "conversion.") 

The Washington Post reported "Nichols had worn out four Bibles through prayer and research, and … he wrote an 83-page letter to a prayer partner in Michigan while trying to make a point about Christian faith." 

Defense attorney Creekmore Wallace testified: "Terry Nichols's belief in God is so firm that he believes if the rapture occurred today, he is going to heaven." Ultimately, Nichols was spared the death penalty. A prosecuting attorney credited the defendant's "conversion." 

The Columbine Killers 

In press reports, Eric David Harris and Dylan Klebold were described as angry and alienated, white supremacist, neo-Nazis with a taste for heavy metal music and violent video games. The press took note that the Columbine massacre was planned for April 20, the birthday of Adolf Hitler. But very little attention was made of the religion of either killer. 

Extensive online research fails to turn up information on Eric Harris' religious leanings, if any. The Web provides evidence that Klebold was raised a Lutheran and notes the young man also observed the Russian Jewish rituals of his maternal grandfather. 

The Tucson Shooting 

On January 8, 2011, Jared Lee Loughner shot eighteen people, including Congressmember Gabby Gifford, in an Arizona parking lot. Six people died, including a young girl. In the aftermath of the mass-murder, the media focused on Loughner's mental state. He was described as a "paranoid schizophrenic" with a penchant for heavy metal music. When the New York Daily News volunteered to assess Loughner's religious influences, it was only to dismiss him as a "chilling," "frightening," "sinister" and "twisted" Satan worshipper. 

Many people following the mainstream media coverage of the tragedy may have missed the report in the January 11 edition of the Jewish Journal, which revealed that the assassin's mother was Jewish. Some commentators speculated that the "Devil's altar" in Loughner's backyard (which included a skull enshrined on a brick altar under a tent-like cover) resembled the "Sukkot booth" featured in the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. 

While Loughner declined to state his religion when he applied to join the Army, he reportedly identified himself as "Jewish" in his MySpace profile. Even stranger, it turned out that Loughner and his parents were members of Congregation Chaverim, the same synagogue favored by Congresswoman Giffords. 

But Loughner was also a self-identified fan of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf who occasionally paraded as a Christian fundamentalist. In 2008, Loughner was busted for painting the letters "C" and "X" on a street sign (while his accommodating parents sat and waited in the family car, which was parked nearby). Loughner told the police the graffiti stood for "Christian." 

The Colorado Theater Shooting 

After James Eagan Holmes was arrested in the aftermath of a 2012 movie theater massacre that wounded 58 moviegoers and killed 12, the media began to dig into his background — including his psychiatric and academic difficulties. The issue of religion didn't enter the picture until March 2013, when the Washington Times revealed the accused killed had "reportedly converted to Islam and prays up to five times a day." 

Holmes, charged with 166 counts of murder and attempted murder, has allowed his beard to grow, now practices a strict Muslim diet and reportedly devotes his days to studying the Koran. But the media's sudden interest in Holmes' newly minted Islamic religious beliefs is missing some critical context. While the Times reported Holmes had "converted to Islam," it failed to explain: "converted from what previous faith"? 

A possible answer to this question can be found in hints from Holmes' past. In an article on The Huffington Post, Senior Pastor Jerald Borgie, revealed that he remembered Holmes as a youngster attending the Penasquitos Lutheran Church in San Diego. In July 2012, Scott Bloyer, pastor of the Elevation Christian Church in Colorado, told The Christian Post that Holmes had attended his sanctuary in the weeks before the shooting rampage. "We think he might've visited in the last month," Bloyer stated. 

The Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting 

In the aftermath of Adam Lanza's horrific assault on a school in Newtown, Connecticut that left 20 children and six adults dead, the media necessarily focused on the tragedy of the victims and the survivors. Lanza remained a mysterious, troubled young man. 

It wasn't until April 17, 2013 that the New York Daily News revealed Lanza had been bullied and physically abused while enrolled as a sixth-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary. A relative told the Daily News that Adam "never seemed emotionally right after his time in Sandy Hook." His mother, Nancy Lanza reportedly considered suing the school but opted to place him in another school after sixth grade. 

This provides some understanding as to motive but the question of Adam Lanza's religious beliefs were never a major concern for the probing media. Once again, there are only hints that suggest what religious traditions may have served to influence Lanza as a youth. 

On April 8, 2013, USA Today revealed that Nancy Lanza "had become increasingly concerned about her con's state of mind… after finding ghastly images in his room two weeks before the Dec. 14 school massacre." According to the New York Daily News (which quoted a family friend who had seen the sketches), one of Lanza's drawings showed "a woman clutching a religious item, like rosary beads, and holding a child, and she was getting all shot up in the back with blood flying everywhere." 

The suggestion that Lanza may have benefited from a Catholic upbringing is reinforced by the news that he had attended the St. Rose Catholic School. 

What more have we learned about the gaunt, wide-eyed child who grew to become a mass-murderer of children and adults? He was a "loner" with Asperger's Syndrome who disliked social settings and hated to be touched. He was obsessed with violent videogames like "Call to Duty." Despite his mother's reservations about her son's mental state, Adam had been allowed to amass a chilling assortment of weaponry including: a Bushmaster XM15 assault rifle with a 30-round magazine, a Glock 10mm handgun, a 9mm Sig Sauer pistol, a Saiga 12 shotgun with two 70-round magazines, a bolt-action Enfield rifle, a Savage Mark II 22-caliber rifle, more than 1,600 rounds of ammunition and a collection of knives and Samurai swords ranging in length from 13 inches to nearly seven feet. 

Among the artifacts at the Lanza home, police also found two NRA certificates, one for Nancy Lanza and on for her son, Adam. Also among Adam's possessions: a copy of the NRA's Guide To Basic Pistol Shooting

The NRA did not take kindly to this disclosure. It responded with a terse statement claiming there was "no record of a member relationship between Newtown killer Adam Lanza… with [sic] the National Rifle Association" and characterizing any such suggestions of a relationship as "reckless, false and defamatory." 

Conclusion: The Scorecard for White Killers 

When it comes to suggesting links between violence and religion, the evidence suggests that the mainstream media approaches the violence of the "other" by turning on the floodlights and surveying the landscape through the lens of a microscope. But when killers are members of the more familiar, "white" community, the media dons blinders that block out all peripheral information, leaving reporters to focus on narrow, single-minded narratives. 

This self-imposed myopia is especially odd in light of the many studies that show the greatest perpetrators of mass-violence are not "foreigners" or "jihadists" but ultra-conservative white people. 

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security warned that the greatest domestic threats of violence could be attributed to religious "fundamentalists" and people "suspicious of centralized federal authority." The report identified some of the "single-issue groups" that posed "the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States." They included groups opposed to abortion, immigration and same-sex marriage. (After howls of outrage from the Tea Party, DHS was forced to withdraw the report.) 

In June 2012, DHS again addressed the issue in a report called "Hot Spots of Terrorism and Other Crimes in the United States, 1970 to 2008." The review again concluded that "single-issue groups" had a longer history of committing atrocities than "extreme right-wing," "extreme left-wing," "religious" or "ethno-nationalist" provocateurs. 

The 2012 report was more nuanced than the earlier survey: it apportioned blame to both ends of the political spectrum. "Anti-abortion" zealots were singled out but, so too, were conservatives, fundamentalists, Marxists and nationalists of various stripes. Crimes conducted under the banner of religious faith included both "Christian Reconstructionist" and "Islamist" actors. 

Instead of warning about a rising tide of religious extremism, the DHS study reported that the decade of the 1990s had been completely free of "religiously motivated terrorist attacks." 

Working with a $12 million grant, researchers with the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism And Responses to Terrorism (START) reached a surprising conclusion. Despite the media's obsession with such partisan constructs as "Islamic terrorism" (the phrase "Christian terrorism" being totally absent from the media's vocabulary), START's detailed survey of four decades of terror events determined that acts of religion-inspired terrorism were "much less prevalent" than the threat of violence from "single-issue" criminals. While politically inspired single-issue violence had caused significant loss of life in 185 countries over the course of 40 years, the START analysis found significant "religious" violence had only erupted in 26 countries. 

Clearly, the focus on religion (and especially the single religion of Islam) to explain acts of terrorism is historically unjustifiable. The greater danger stems from politically motivated "single issue" violence. America's white-skinned mass murderers have been a mixed bag, religiously — Catholics, Jews, Lutherans, agnostics and unbelievers. 

In the words of the 2012 DHS report, the most serious terrorist threats stem from groups that hold beliefs that are "nationalistic (as opposed to universal and international in orientation), anti-global, suspicious of centralized federal authority, reverent of individual liberty, and believe in conspiracy theories that involve grave threat to national sovereignty and/or personal liberty." 

It is not religions that we need to fear; it is the extremism of the political "true-believer" that endangers public safety, domestic tranquility and democracy.