You could almost hear the sigh of relief from some quarters when the perpetrators behind the Boston Marathon bombings and its aftermath turned out to be adherents of radical Islam.
Calling what happened in Boston "Islamic violence" is comforting, because it renders it immediately recognizable to post-9/11 minds, and locates the source of the violence outside of American society. A more unsettling but more accurate account of the Tsarnaev brothers would see them as merely the latest incarnation of a figure as old as the United States itself: the isolated individual lost in the social and cultural whirlwind that is secular American modernity, who sees salvation in the absolute moral clarity of an idiosyncratic collection of beliefs, and decides that he would rather resort to violence than countenance any concession to a complicated, ambiguous social reality.
The Tsarnaevs are part of a continuum that includes not just other Muslims, but Christians like anti-abortion killers Paul Hill and Scott Roeder along with arguably more secular perpetrators like Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh. The faith of the Tsarnaev brothers, in this sense, is more American than Islamic.
The earliest avatar of this American tradition was Theodore Wieland, anti-hero of Charles Brockden Brown's 1798 novel Wieland. Acting under the sway of "the empire of religious duty," Wieland, son of an immigrant from Saxony, murders his wife and four children at the behest of what he believes to be the audible voice of God. Based on popular accounts of New York farmer John Yates' murder of his family in 1781, Brown's novel warns that a radically personalized Christian religiosity, pieced together from the shards of older, more coherent European traditions, might become a strategy for politicizing religion and using it to enforce an arbitrary moral stability amidst the confusing multiplicity of voices in the early American republic.
William James, the American pioneer of the scholarly study of religion, would call Wieland's behavior not religious violence, but "fanaticism." In his 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience, James argued that, for the fanatic, "piety is the mask, the inner force is tribal instinct." Where Nietzsche had observed and analyzed Christianity's supposed preoccupation with the vengeance of the powerless against the powerful, James used this specific form of hostility, called ressentiment, to account for the violent inclinations we see from isolated pretenders to "saintliness" -- people whose real faith is in the invulnerability of their self-made system of beliefs more than in any traditionally and communally observed God.
Fanaticism is not religion pushed too far. It is tribalism without a tribe. And it can be a particular risk with the geographical and cultural dislocation attending the American experience of immigration, whether for the Wielands of Saxony or the Tsarnaevs of Dagestan.
The figure of the culturally isolated, fanatical religious killer has remained a specter in American life. Hollywood in particular has carried the trope to new levels of fascination, almost always in a Christian guise. Think of Robert DeNiro's Pentecostal rapist in Cape Fear (1991), Kevin Spacey's psychotic preacher-killer in Se7en (1995), or, more recently, Walton Goggins's Christian militia leader in the F/X television show Justified. Perhaps more than anyone, Samuel L. Jackson--under the direction of Quentin Tarantino -- made the Bible-thumping killer a pop culture icon in Pulp Fiction (1994), where his gangster character quotes a made-up Bible verse before he executes a hapless victim. Many of these depictions draw on an even more classic depiction of violent religious fanaticism from old Hollywood, a beguiling serial killer named "Preacher" played by Robert Mitchum in the beloved (and only) film by Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter (1955).
Here, as in so many other areas, the cinema projects our vague and often misplaced collective anxieties. What's lost in popular conceptions of the religious killer is the complex mix of beliefs and motivations. It's tempting to suppose that this fanatical violence belongs only to religion, and especially to the more traditional and less modern forms of religion. Indeed, it's become a secular truism that religion inherently promotes fanaticism and that the world would be safer without religious belief of any kind. Conventional wisdom holds that religion is one of the most potent forces for violence humanity has ever known. That's a belief that deserves a critical examination.