It’s not uncommon to hear people claim that all religions are roughly the same when it comes to acts of violence. And when folks make this claim in the context of terrorism in the United States, it’s not uncommon that they will cite Timothy McVeigh as an example of a “Christian” terrorist.
President Bush said as much in an interview a few years ago. Nobody in the media corrected him. And outgoing Newsweek editor Jon Meacham did the moral equivalency on the flip side. He said that Nidal Hasan, a Muslim who killed 13 soldiers and wounded 30 others, was no more a Muslim terrorist than Timothy McVeigh was a Christian terrorist.
And now we have a similar statement from NPR’s Michel Martin. Appearing on CNN’s Reliable Sources this week, she was part of an exchange with Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson about the mosque proposed to be built two blocks from ground zero:
MARTIN: In 10 years from now we won’t be talking about this, but it’s an issue for right now.
CARLSON: Right. And wouldn’t it be a great thing if they moved it a few blocks, and Muslims and Americans who still worry would be talking to each other? Let’s compromise. Well, why don’t we compromise?
MARTIN: Should anybody move a Catholic church? Did anybody move a Christian church after Timothy McVeigh, who adhered to a cultic — white supremacist cultic version of Christianity, bombed –
Whatever one might think of the strengths or weaknesses of the moral equivalency argument, McVeigh is simply not a good example to use. People in the media need to find a better example.
Everyone who paid even surface-level attention to the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City would know that McVeigh was motivated by extreme hatred of the federal government, not Christianity. McVeigh rarely discussed religion. When he did, he did not indicate any motivation at all coming from religion. This is not something that could be said about the 9/11 bombers or Nidal Hasan.
For those curious about McVeigh’s views, I recommend “American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing.” Written by two journalists who corresponded with and covered McVeigh’s trial and execution, the book describes McVeigh as having somewhat complicated views, but the takeaway is probably best summarized by his quote “Science is my religion.” He was raised and even confirmed Catholic. But the book also describes him as avoiding worship while in the military, once visiting a Seventh Day Adventist congregation and finding it boring, and claiming that he lost touch with religion. Again, this does not sound like the Christian equivalent of Major Hasan or the 9/11 bombers.
Time magazine interviewed McVeigh about his religious views and he said he wasn’t terribly religious but did believe in a God. Shortly before he was executed, he accepted an offer to receive last rites from a priest. But he also sent a letter to the Buffalo News where he described himself as an agnostic but said he would adapt if it turned out there was an afterlife. Here’s how Dan Herbeck, one of the Buffalo News reporters, explained it it in an interview with ABC’s Sam Donaldson:
Well, he is an agnostic. He doesn’t believe in God, but he has told us he doesn’t not believe in God. Death is part of his adventure, as he describes it to us. And he told us that when he finds out if there is an afterlife, he will improvise, adapt and overcome just like they taught him in the Army.
There’s a reason why nobody even thought to suggest that a Catholic or other Christian church should not be built near the Murrah building or that any religious structures near the site should be moved. I’m not suggesting that people in the media should be in the business of suggesting that all religions have the same problem with terrorism. But if they are going to do that, they simply need to get a better handle on history.