Why the Reaction Is Different When the Terrorist Is White

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Atrocities like the attack on the Sikh congregation in Wisconsin introduce terrifying dissonance into America's post-9/11 mindset.

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Members of the Sikh congregation mourn their dead. / Reuters

Observing that the Sunday attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin hasn't attracted nearly as much attention as other shooting sprees, including last week's rampage at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, Robert Wright wonders if the disparity is due to the fact that most people who shape discourse in America "can imagine their friends and relatives -- and themselves -- being at a theater watching a Batman movie," but can't imagine themselves or their acquaintances in a Sikh temple. "This isn't meant as a scathing indictment; it's only natural to get freaked out by threats in proportion to how threatening they seem to you personally," Wright says, adding that the press ought to give much more coverage to the incident.

In a provocative essay in The Awl, Jay Caspian Kang goes different places with the same core insight. "Who, when first hearing of the news, didn't assume the killings were an act of racial hatred? Who didn't start to piece together the turbans, the brown skin, the epidemic of post-9/11 violence that is under-reported, or at least never has all its incidents connected?" he asked. That narrative "only implicates a small percentage of Americans," he continued, "the story of the massacre at Oak Creek will be, by definition, exclusionary. It will be 'tragic' and 'unthinkable' and 'horrific,' but it will not force millions of Americans to ask potentially unanswerable questions. It will not animate an angry public." It will seem different, he adds, to members of the several minority groups "who cannot limit themselves out of the victims of Oak Creek."

These observations ring largely true to me.

There is, however, another factor that likely explains some of the reticence of some Americans, including professional commentators, to focus very much attention on the Oak Creek massacre.

Their disinclination to grapple with it has less to do with the victims than the gunman. The key factor isn't that they're Sikhs; it's that the apparent homegrown terrorist -- a term virtually no one would object to had a murderous Muslim burst into the Sikh temple -- was perpetrated by a white guy.

Hold the victims constant and give the perpetrator the last name Mohammed. Does anyone think for a moment that such an attack wouldn't still be the most discussed story at Fox News and National Review? And at various network news shows and unaffiliated newspapers for that matter?

Instead Wade Michael Page was the gunman.

Attacks like his are disconcerting to some white Americans for a seldom acknowledged reason. Since 9/11, many Americans have conflated terrorism with Muslims; and having done so, they've tolerated or supported counterterrorism policies safe in the presumption that people unlike them would bear their brunt. (If Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD sent officers beyond the boundaries of New York City to secretly spy on evangelical Christian students or Israeli students or students who own handguns the national backlash would be swift, brutal, and decisive. The revelation of secret spying on Muslim American students was mostly defended or ignored.)     

In the name of counterterrorism, many Americans have given their assent to indefinite detention, the criminalization of gifts to certain charities, the extrajudicial assassination of American citizens, and a sprawling, opaque homeland security bureaucracy; many have also advocated policies like torture or racial profiling that are not presently part of official anti-terror policy.

What if white Americans were as likely as Muslims to be victimized by those policies? What if the sprawling national security bureaucracy we've created starts directing attention not just to Muslims and their schools and charities, but to right-wing militias and left-wing environmental groups (or folks falsely accused of being in those groups because they seem like the sort who would be)? There are already dossiers on non-Muslim extremist groups. In a post-9/11 world, Islamic terrorism has nevertheless been the overwhelming priority for law enforcement, and insofar as innocents have suffered, Muslims have been affected far more than any other identifiable group, because the bulk of the paradigm shift in law enforcement hasn't spread beyond them.

Would that still be true if the next terrorist attack on American soil looks like Oklahoma City? How would President Obama or President Romney wield their unprecedented executive power in the aftermath of such an attack? Who would find that they'd been put on no fly lists? Whose cell phone conversations and email exchanges would be monitored without their ever knowing about it?

It ought to be self-evident that non-Muslims perpetrate terrorist attacks, and that a vanishingly small percentage of Muslims are terrorists, but those two truths aren't widely appreciated in America. That doesn't mean they won't reassert themselves, for terrorist attacks have always been with us; the tactic has never been exclusive to a single ideology for very long; and the power the state marshals against one sort of terrorist is sure to be first to hand when another sort strikes.

Anxiety over this possibility was evident early in President Obama's term, when a Homeland Security report on right-wing extremism was roundly denounced by conservative bloggers, who know as well as anyone that you don't want to wind up in a class of people whose rights are determined by the Office of Legal Counsel. Spencer Ackerman just did a followup with that report's author. Whatever you think of the document, its warning against the possibility of a disgruntled military veteran perpetrating right-wing extremist violence seems vindicated by initial reports from Wisconsin.

Quoth that most famous scene from A Man for All Seasons:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

Having flattened so many laws (and a good many innocents) in pursuit of the terrorist, the American majority is naturally loath to focus its attention on a terrorist who looks, talks, and dresses as they do. It is particularly uncomfortable for those in the country who feel most reflexively safe when "an American" is beside them on a plane, instead of a bearded man with a turban. Watching Oak Creek, that subset of Americans was put in a position to realize that a day prior they'd have identified with the terrorist more than his victims.

And so they quickly looked away.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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