As the shock and horror of what transpired on January 8, when a “deranged gunman” opened fire and killed 6 people outside a Tuscon grocery store, continues to subside, I cannot help but be bewildered by the extreme efforts of some in the punditocracy to deflect any sort of collective blame for what happened. Commentator after commentator, mostly on the Right, continually stress that the actions of this man, Jared Lee Loughner, have nothing to do with the Conservative movement or the millions of Americans who call themselves so. Writing in the National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg states:
The effort to assign blame to conservatives or tea partiers is unfair slanderous nonsense, driven by a desire to demonize fellow Americans and drive conservative views outside the bounds of legitimate discourse. Indeed, even if conservative rhetoric — or, sigh, Facebook maps – were misconstrued by a tiny fraction of a fraction of the roughly 40% of Americans who call themselves conservative to the point where they committed a violent act, it would still be outrageous to assign that intent to mainstream Republican or conservative figures or to the ideas they espouse.
Quoting the sainted figure Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin said: “‘We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.'”
She then continued: “Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election.”
To be clear, Mr. Goldberg and Mrs. Palin are exactly correct. It is totally outrageous to assign the blame on an entire segment of the American population for the actions of, to use his words, “a tiny fraction of a fraction” of that segment. Yet, when it comes to Muslims committing violence, such extreme efforts to deflect blame upon all Muslims or Islam itself is almost never seen, even though the acts of violence are committed by said “tiny fraction of a fraction” of Muslims.
Take the recent FBI-orchestrated bombing attempt in Portland, Oregon as an example. The mosque which the bombing suspect, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, attended was revealed, and it was deliberately set on fire. Almost always, when a Muslim suspect is apprehended, the mosque which he either regularly or even occasionally attended is highlighted. Why?
On Jared Lee Loughner’s Wikipedia page, It delineates his history in excruciating detail. Yet, there is no mention of the church with which he may have been affiliated (in fact, it mentions that he was critical of religion). This is completely appropriate, because knowledge of the church with which he may have been affiliated is completely irrelevant. The congregants of that church have nothing to do with his actions.
In her statement, Sarah Palin lashes out at journalists who had the audacity to link the actions of Jared Lee Loughner with her infamous map on which individual Congressional districts, including that of Gabby Giffords, were targeted with graphics of gun cross-hairs: “…journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.” Of course, it is not known for certain that this map was the motivation behind Loughner’s massacre. And so many are quick, rightly, to point this out.
Yet, imagine, for one moment, if a “MuhammadPAC” had published a map of Muslim-unfriendly Congressional districts and had cross-hairs or even little scimitars on them. If a Muslim gunman had then opened fire in one of these districts, is there any doubt that there would be an immediate linkage? Is there any doubt that this gunman, and “MuhammadPAC,” would be considered as full-blown terrorists? Is there any doubt that the entire Muslim community would be blamed for the attack?
Moreover, Mrs. Palin herself used this “collective blame” tactic when speaking out against the so-called “Ground-Zero Mosque,” which is a local, New York issue, and issued a call to the entire American Muslim community: “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.” What does this mean, exactly? Those Muslims who support the Park51 project are not peaceful? And what does the entire American Muslim community have to do with the Park51 project, which is, again, a local New York City issue?
In fact, this sort of collective blame, which the right is vigorously attacking when it seems to be directed at them, seems to be behind the thinking of the new Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King (R-NY). Speaking to Frank Gaffney on his radio show, Mr. King said:
Yeah, and Frank, this is very unusual for our country because despite a person’s ethnic background or religious background, when a war begins, we’re all Americans. But in this case, this is not the situation. And whether it’s pressure, whether it’s cultural tradition, whatever, the fact is the Muslim community does not cooperate anywhere near to the extent that it should. The irony is that we’re living in two different worlds. One is the real world that I find when I’m talking with police officers, talking with federal law enforcement authorities. And when I raise the question of Muslim cooperation, they look at me like ‘oh of course not, no there’s no cooperation, we don’t anticipate that.’ You know, ‘We never expect cooperation.’ They try but hardly ever get it.
Not only is this patently false, as the Muslim community has played an instrumental role in breaking up potential terrorist plots, but it speaks to a larger sense that American Muslims are not “real” Americans. They are foreign, strange, and not to be trusted. This is probably why attacks by Muslims such as Nidal Malik Hassan did not generate such deep introspection about civility, political discourse, and the like. Nidal Malik Hassan, even though he was American-born, just doesn’t seem like “one of us,” whereas Jared Lee Loughner does.
In his moving speech at the memorial service for the dead and wounded in Tuscon, President Obama said:
But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -– at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do -– it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds…
I echo this call and urge it be applied to all of America’s citizens, including her Muslim ones. Jonah Goldberg’s words are completely correct, and they apply just as much to the Muslim community as they do to conservatives. Sarah Palin is absolutely right in saying that, “Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them…,” and that includes criminals who have a Muslim name or background.
The tragedy in Tuscon has deeply wounded our country, and I hope and pray that we as a country as made stronger as a result of what has happened. And if, God forbid, another Muslim is accused of plotting an act of terror, I hope and pray that people remember the words of our President: “What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do. That we cannot do.”
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is called God, Faith, and a Pen. His latest book is Noble Brother: The Story of the Prophet Muhammad in Poetry (Faithful Word Press).