Muslims Murder, Christians Don’t: What Went Missing in Analysis of Tiller’s Executioner

On June 1, the New York Times ran a story, “Seeking Clues on Suspect in Shooting of Doctor,” an investigation into a little known anti-abortion activist, Scott Roeder, who’d been arrested for gunning down Kansas abortion provider George Tiller, as the latter handed out bulletins in the foyer of his Wichita Lutheran church. Apparently, Roeder caught the relevant civil agencies off guard. Though they knew of his outspoken anti-abortion views and his previous forms of protest, they did not consider him dangerous—a sentiment shared by Roeder’s fellow anti-abortion activists and family members.

As the Times headline suggests, there must have been something in Roeder’s background that everyone missed, which would explain why he crossed the line from protest to murder.

Similar questions regarding the motives for murder apparently do not linger around the June 1 killing of an army recruiter, Private William A. Long, in Little Rock, Arkansas. The June 2 headline in the Times purports to give the “Report of Motive in Recruiter Attack,” and introduces the alleged killer, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, as “an American convert to Islam.”

Details of Muhammad’s connection to Islam punctuate the article: he converted to Islam several years ago, legally changing his name from Carlos Bledsoe to the very Muslim-sounding name the article uses; he recently changed his name again (for unexplained “religious reasons”) to Abdulhakim Bledsoe; he once was detained in Yemen for traveling with a fake Somali passport; the FBI investigated him for possible connections to Muslim extremist groups (which it couldn’t establish); he was angry at the United States for killing Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan; preliminary police investigation reveals “political and religious” motivation for his crime; among his personal possessions were (gasp!) CDs labeled in Arabic and papers with Arabic handwriting on them. What was the “motive in [the] recruiter attack” according to this article? Muhammad’s religion, no doubt.

But the same can be said of Scott Roeder’s motive, according to his ex-wife Lindsey Roeder; though her claim doesn’t find much support in the articles published about her ex-husband in the major media outlets. According to Ms. Roeder, about a decade ago her then-husband underwent “a drastic personality shift” and sought a scapegoat for his undisclosed woes. “First it was taxes—he stopped paying. Then he turned to the church and got involved in anti-abortion.”

In an AP story, Ms. Roeder remarked that her ex-husband became “very religious in an Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye way,” and later: “That’s all [Roeder] cared about is anti-abortion. ‘The church is this. God is this.’ Yadda Yadda.”

Finally, a CNN story quotes a fellow anti-abortion activist whose assessment of Roeder’s alleged crime revolves around the fact that “[Roeder] was a confessing Christian. He always read his Bible, which wasn’t uncommon. He professed faith in Jesus Christ.”

These details about the connection of Mr. Roeder’s violent actions to his Christian faith, however, are glossed over in the Times article devoted to investigating the motivation for his actions. Instead, this article points to various other details (supposedly of the non-religious variety): his prior abortion protests and acts of vandalism at the abortion clinic; his links to the Freeman movement, Operation Rescue, and Kansas’ Patriot movement (all described as either anti-government or anti-abortion); his authorship of articles in Prayer and Action News (about which the Times provides no information); his alleged past mental illness; and his prior arrest for possessing explosives.

In sharp contrast to its article about Abdulhakim Muhammad (and virtually every article published about him in all the major media outlets), the Times’ article about Roeder ignores almost every connection of his faith to his crime, despite what his ex-wife and his activist colleague claim. The point is that although some of this information does exist, you really have to dig to find the details which are buried amid a sea of other biographical data. Some, like the Times, actually manage to exclude nearly all of the details of Roeder’s religion altogether.

The Times, however, is not unique in its reporting of either case. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News all relegate Mr. Roeder’s religious motivation to the margins, while all play up Mr. Muhammad’s connections to Islam. Unsurprisingly, Fox News’ coverage is the most extreme. Its main story about Muhammad explores his every connection to Islam, with each of the first four sentences of the story providing separate details of Muhammad’s faith, including the shocking revelation (attributed to jihadwatch.org) that while in Yemen he studied jihad with a Muslim cleric. (Fox News is not known to let a dubious source stand in the way of a good story about scary Muslims.)

In contrast, Mr. Roeder’s Christian faith is not reported on in any Fox News-authored article. Details of his biography, in fact, are kept to a bare minimum, with the articles focusing instead on Dr. Tiller’s clinic and the history of protests, vandalism and violence that he and his clinic faced over the years. One article, redolent of the logic sometimes deployed against rape victims, even implies that Tiller himself was the source of his problems, since his profession made him a natural target. By playing up the murder victim’s connection to abortion and downplaying the alleged perpetrator’s connection to Christianity and anti-government ideology, Fox News is no doubt crafting its news coverage to the ideological tastes of its generally right-leaning audience (i.e., the victim was doing something we all think is bad; the criminal’s evil motives have nothing to do with what we think is good).

Again, it would be a mistake for criticism to be focused solely on Fox News. By choosing to paint Roeder as a right-wing, anti-government, anti-tax, anti-abortionist, the Times utterly failed to explore Lindsey Roeder’s assertion about the central role of faith in her ex-husband’s alleged crime. Even more perplexing is that even as the Times ignores Ms. Roeder in exploring alternative explanations for Roeder’s crime, it ends up providing accidental and unwitting verification of Ms. Roeder’s very claim.

For example, the Times articles link Roeder to the Freeman and Patriot Movements, both of which are right-wing groups with anti-government, anti-banking, and/or anti-abortion views. What remains unreported is the fact that these views stem from each group’s commitment to the Christian Identity Movement, an extreme right-wing branch of American Christianity.

Further, while the Times’ articles do link Roeder to Operation Rescue (an active anti-abortion organization), they again neglect to include the critical information that the group promotes itself as a “Christian activist organization” that attempts “to stop abortion in obedience to biblical mandate.” And while they identify Roeder as the author of articles for the Prayer and Action News, a publication that bills itself as “a trumpet call for the Armies of God to assemble,” which mixes “Politics and Religion the way our Founding Fathers Did,” it plays up the anti-abortionist slant of the publication but fails to disclose that its views on abortion stem from its overarching and extreme right-wing version of Christianity.

The willful silence about the apparent centrality of Mr. Roeder’s faith is evidenced most glaringly in the most recent Times coverage: in the course of providing biographical details about Roeder, it has deleted his ex-wife’s link between his church and his anti-abortion activism (which the prior article actually does include). In this latest article, however, we learn a new detail about Roeder that might account for his crime—namely a recent, newly developed pattern of erratic behavior.

The Friday before he killed Dr. Tiller, Roeder invited his 22-year-old son to go to dinner and a movie; which was odd for him, claims his ex-wife, because Roeder normally celebrated the Sabbath beginning at dusk every Friday (a detail the article pursues no further). In other words, the Times fails to explore the connection between Roeder’s seemingly erratic behavior and his religious practice. For what appears to be innocuous behavior (going to dinner and a movie with his son) would not be noteworthy were it not for a more basic religious practice (Sabbath observance) that is evidently of primary importance to Roeder, and suggestive of the centrality of his faith.

Moreover, had the Times pursued this issue more deeply, it would have discovered the particular contours of Roeder’s religiosity: it is a distinctive practice of many who belong to the Christian Identity Movement to observe the Jewish Sabbath (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday) instead of the traditional Christian one on Sunday.

I do not know either Mr. Muhammad or Mr. Roeder, nor had I even heard of either man prior to several days ago, but I am reasonably confident that Roeder’s religious commitments supplied comparable motivation for his violent actions as did Muhammad’s for his. I am also confident, given the details unwittingly supplied in the various articles about Roeder, that he, like Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph, subscribed to Identity Christianity (in contrast to other high-profile Christian abortion activists discussed in RD here, who generally arrive at their vitriolic and dangerous brands of Christianity via the Christian Reconstructionist and Dominionist theologies). An exploration, however, of Roeder’s apparent immersion in the Christian Identity Movement does not fit the dominant story line that has emerged of Roeder in news articles about him. According to these articles, he is right wing, anti-government, and anti-abortionist, with a prior arrest history and perhaps mental problems. His faith, apparently, is irrelevant.

The Times and other major news outlets have done their readers a tremendous disservice by playing down Mr. Roeder’s faith as a motivating factor in his alleged crimes. But more is going on here than simply flawed journalism. The reporting of Mr. Roeder’s and Mr. Muhammad’s alleged violent crimes is a clear indication of the generally unspoken and likely unreflective assumptions held by many Americans about the world’s two largest religions, Christianity and Islam.

The former is generally taken to be a peaceful religion that promotes what is good and virtuous; the latter as a religion of violence. The effects of these assumptions have been well discussed here on RD, including in two recent articles, one about a Doonesbury comic strip repeating a misleading and offensive caricature of the God of the Old Testament in contrast to the God of the New; the other about “Intellectualized Islamophobia.” The effect of these assumptions on recent journalism, however, is an excessive focus on the Muslim faith of one alleged killer, and an automatic disregard for the Christian faith of the other. The articles confirm what we already “know” about what turned Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Roeder into killers: the Muslim faith of the former is all the explanation required, while the Christian faith of the latter is not relevant to the explanation at all.

MathewsonDB@wofford.edu'

Dan Mathewson is Assistant Professor of Religion at Wofford College where he teaches about contemporary expressions of religious faith. He has authored papers and one book that explore such topics as biblical texts, trauma theory, American Evangelicalism, science and religion, and professional wrestling. His real vocational goal is to play in the NHL.