Police say the Las Vegas killer was a white American named Steve. Two days later, we still know almost nothing else about him. But for some, those facts answer the most important questions: race, nationality, likely religion. For some, those are the most important questions about anyone. The top priority, as soon as blood spills, is to open the ledger, and see whether to add to the column of white rampage killers with names like Steve or Curtis, or the column of olive-hued foreigners with names like Omar or Abd al-Rahman. Ah hell, who am I kidding? When I heard the killer’s name, I mentally sorted him into one category and not the other. Maybe you didn’t. But I bet you did.
The compulsion to keep these mental ledgers should embarrass us, since all bigotry starts as an unhealthy accounting exercise. (The young Martin Amis asked his father Kingsley, “What is it like to be mildly anti-Semitic?” Kingsley replied: “Very mild, as you say. ... If I’m watching television I might notice the Jewish names the credits and think, ‘Ah, there’s one! There’s another one!’”) But worse than keeping a ledger is keeping one without knowing it, and worst of all is keeping a crooked set of books.
On one side, there are hyperventilating charlatans who see every Islamic State stabbing as a sign of a coming Shariah tsunami; when a white guy shoots up a black church, they dismiss him as a headcase, with no broader relevance to politics or race or religion. On the other side is a near photonegative of the same impulse: Every Muslim homicidal maniac is unhinged, and his rage is unrelated to his religion, whatever his own protests to the contrary.