White Supremacy, Mental Illness, or Society: What’s to Blame for Religious Violence?

This article is part of It’s Your Fault, The Cubit’s series on blame in contemporary society. In this essay, RD associate editor Michael Schulson analyzes the patterns of blame that emerge in the aftermath of religious and ideological violence. 

For more on blame, read the introductory post or explore the full series.

Less than a day after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, George Packer published a post on the The New Yorker’s website titled “The Blame for the Charlie Hebdo Murders,” in which he explained that:

The murders today in Paris are not a result of France’s failure to assimilate two generations of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies. They’re not about French military action….They’re not part of some general wave of nihilistic violence in the economically depressed, socially atomized, morally hollow West…They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades.

For a while now, I’ve been wondering: how did George Packer know?

As a staff writer for The New Yorker his editors surely expect him to be able to support even claims made in an op-ed. But when Packer published “The Blame for the Charlie Hebdo Murders,” virtually nothing was known about the attackers. The two men had not released any statements about their motives. In fact, the most they would ever say, before dying two days later, was that a desire for revenge had motivated their attack.

But let’s say the attackers had published a manifesto the day of their attack, along with in-depth autobiographies and an affidavit stating, “Islamism motivated us.” Even then, would they have been trustworthy sources? Criminals often cite motives—God told me to do itHe looked at me funny—that seem to provide false or incomplete explanations for their crimes. It’s not clear how Packer could have disentangled all the different elements that might lead someone to kill, and point to one of them—ideology—as the single causal factor.

To be fair, facts weren’t exactly the point of Packer’s article. (He has since described the piece as “too-quick,” adding “I think I’d still stand by it”). With characteristic foresight, Packer was sketching out the lines of a debate that would play out over the coming weeks, one that revolved around whether French society or Islamism was to blame for the Paris attacks.

Some version of this argument emerges after any high-profile act of religious or ideological violence against Westerners, whether in Paris, Jerusalem or Charleston, S.C.

In the aftermath of such an attack, there’s a rush to explain it, usually according to one of three causes: ideology, psychology, or society. The explanations appear almost instantaneously, and they generally reflect more about the interest and ideology of the explainer than they do the actual evidence of the case.

On the one side are those who argue that dangerous ideas are to blame for bloodshed—that worldviews can infect and control people’s minds, like a parasite. New Atheist thinkers, such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, have been especially strong proponents of this position after acts of religious violence.

Packer took up that line of thinking in his post-Hebdo op-ed. So did many people in the wake of the Charleston shooting who emphasized that white supremacist ideology was to blame for Roof’s actions; or those who, after Elliot Rodger’s shooting spree in California, blamed white male privilege.

I don’t mean to equate Islamism with patriarchy and white supremacy. “Islamism,” which reflects a fairly specific set of institutions and political positions, is regularly used as code for “most of Islam.” And those who obsesses about Islamism often flirt with more bald-faced statements of Islamophobia.

Critics of white supremacy and patriarchy, on the other hand, point out that these ideologies are pervasive in the culture at large. The blame casts a wide net, not in order to single out a minority group, but in order to implicate a culture that’s been saturated with these ideas.

In short, not all ideological blame is alike. But there is a common thread here in the tendency to focus exclusively on ideas as the motivation for an attack. That focus can be revealing, because ideology alone never fully explains violence. Plenty of virulent white supremacists and violence-promoting Islamists and privileged men never come close to killing anyone.

Others direct their blame toward forces that emerge from within the individual. Mental illness is frequently blamed for acts of violence, especially by those who share ideological affiliations with the perpetrator. According to this logic, violent acts are committed by crazed persons who just so happen to be gun advocates, or Muslim, or champions of the Confederacy. But the lines of sanity can be difficult to define after bloodshed, and it seems obtuse to claim that a professed ideology played no role in an act of violence.

Still others blame dysfunctional societies. Karen Armstrong, for example, argues in Fields of Blood that colonialism underlies contemporary religious violence, not the religions themselves. Others will claim that oppression is the cause of violence among young Muslims in France, or that economic downturns and disempowerment should be blamed for right-wing violence.

Ideology, mental illness, and social problems all do contribute to bloodshed, of course. What’s strange is that we make sense of violence in such monolithic terms, and often with so little evidence. But it’s worth dissecting the peculiar terms of the debate that emerges after these highly public, tragic spectacles. Doing so highlights the extraordinarily low standards that we often accept in the analysis of blame.

Getting to know everything you don’t know

Which brings me back to my original question. In the hours after an attack, how do the George Packers of the world know what’s really to blame for the violence?

The answer, of course, is that they don’t.

In part, that’s because the evidence is so sparse. The perpetrators often have died. While alive, they’ve rarely evinced any serious intellectual foundation for their actions. Maybe society is to blame, but it’s hard to pin down any concrete connection between social conditions and a given act of terror; while social science identifies patterns, it can rarely tell us where the blame lies in any specific instance.

In a recent essay for The Atlantic, criminologist Simon Cottee challenges the idea that we can ever fully understand why someone becomes a terrorist. “Everyone from clerics to caustic cab drivers seems to have a confident opinion on the subject,” he writes, “as though the interior world of terrorists can be easily mined and mapped.”

But, Cottee continues:

this confidence is often misplaced, given how little scholars actually know about terrorism and the people who are involved in it. It also betrays an epic obliviousness about just how difficult it is to access the internal, subjective desires and emotions that shape the outer world.

Mind-reading is difficult, and the patterns of terror are hard to map. Two people can share identical beliefs, social conditions, or backgrounds, while only one of them turns to violence. Conversely, identical forms of violence—for example, mass shootings—are enacted by people with radically opposed beliefs, and from a range of social positions.

One person can be considered mentally ill, and the other not, and they can kill in similar ways

And so on. There’s no definite logic to these tragedies; no single mental, ideological, or social disposition that every perpetrator shares. And yet none of this stops the speculation. Cottee is homing in on a broader culture of post-tragedy blame, in which everyone takes a crack at making sense of events that, in their particularities, border on the inscrutable.

So why bother to hash it out at all? As is so often the case, the act of assigning blame tells us more about the blamer than it does about society. Where evidence is absent, preconceptions—or, to use a less euphemistic term, prejudices—have room to roam.

As a small library of commentary has documented, Western observers are often quicker to blame Islam for an attack by a self-professed Muslim than they are to blame Christianity for a similar attack by a self-professed Christian.

Observers also seem to blame mental illness more readily when the perpetrator is white. At Salon, Arthur Chu notices this phenomenon in the reactions to the Charleston shooting. Norwegian writer and politician Shoaib Sultan made a similar point earlier this year in reference to the Anders Breivik terrorist attack from 2011. “If [Breivik’s attack] had been done by a Muslim guy, we would never have this prolonged discussion about mental health,” Sultan told The New York Review of Books. (Courts have declared that Breivik, a white supremacist, is sane).

And, based on my own feelings, I would hazard a guess that many who feel that white supremacy is to blame for Dylann Roof’s actions in Charleston were more hesitant, a few months ago, to argue that Islamism was to blame for the attacks in Paris. (Again, the two ideologies are not equivalent; the question is how much we privilege the power of ideas in our analysis of the blame).

Motives are not causes

The problem, perhaps, is that we’ve confused the lawyer’s question about motive with the social scientist’s concern about underlying cause. Both are models for understanding cause-and-effect, but their goals—and standards—are not the same.

At its root, motive is a narrative tool. It lets us transform a tangled set of events into a coherent story, with some logical sequence of cause-and-effect that propels the action forward. In a court of law, that understanding of motivation is enough to let us arrive at a socially accepted account of the tragedy.

On the surface, motive is often easy to figure out. It’s possible to take the perpetrator’s claims at face value, and leave it at that. Courts don’t need to unravel all the sociological, psychological, and historical reasons for hatred. They’re content to say “He hated his boss, so he killed him.”

There are limits, here. Motives are useful within the context of criminal justice, but they do not provide very good grounds for making predictions. Nor can they account for the entire range of factors that contribute to violence. In other words, while they help us tell a good story, they don’t necessarily help us understand the full chain of cause-and-effect that leads to violence.

Those underlying mechanisms are much harder to identify, because the perpetrators’ statements may not give you a complete picture. Violence can have multiple causes, and the relationships between them can be difficult to identify and unravel. Other challenges emerge when you try to connect individual cases to the larger phenomena documented by social scientists. Much as we want to apply general patterns to specific cases, it never quite works. There’s a kernel of rage and mystery at the core of any individual violent crime.

In public conversations after big attacks, we claim to have the objectivity and depth of the social scientist. But we use the standards of the courtroom jury. The result is a kind of public trial—a process of blaming that sounds rigorous, but seems to concern itself more with shaping the narrative than actually understanding the mechanisms behind violence.

Is that imprecision such a bad thing? Dylann Roof’s attack, for example, has been used to highlight persistent racism in American society, and to challenge the Confederate flag. That’s certainly a positive consequence of a terrible event, even if nobody really has any idea what went on in Roof’s head.

Still, there are reasons to pause before we all go groping for motives.

For one thing, while motives tend to be singular, underlying causes are always plural.

Honest responses have to pay attention to multiple causes, instead of collapsing reality to a single motive in order to serve political agendas.

More troubling is that this rapid-fire blame cycle often plays into the hands of those who support terror. The great fantasy of terrorism, after all, is that violence is coherent, and that it can be used to express and advance an agenda—that, in short, violence is a legitimate form of speech. Ideologies bolster that fantasy. They outline a structure of motives. They tell us exactly what and whom we should blame or praise, depending on our perspective. They create narratives to justify violence. In doing so, they suggest that bloodshed is something other than a cruel and selfish act.

To explain the motives for terrorism is often to buy into that narrative. After the Charlie Hebdo murders, for example, when George Packer argued that ideology was to blame, some of the people likeliest to agree with him were probably members of al Qaeda. Blame is more closely related to justification than we often admit. Both seek clarity.

In response, we might want to acknowledge—regularly, forcefully—everything that we do not know about a given act of bloodshed. And while it’s important to recognize larger patterns, when it comes to our conversations about any individual attack, we can assert—regularly, forcefully—the narrow-minded incoherence of violence.

What gets lost among all this talk of society, ideology, and psychology is the role of individual responsibility. Again and again, our blame renders the perpetrator irrelevant—the object of some larger force rather than a selfish individual maximizing his own desires.

Yes, of course: people are subject to forces outside their own conscious control. But not always, and not necessarily. There are (tangled) personal goals that can be achieved through killing. We live in a culture that widely celebrates and honors violence. Yet we find it hard to understand why someone might live out his or her particular personal fantasies through bloodshed.

Fantasy and desire, intersecting with ideas, societies, psychoses: what could be more personal, more individualized, more petty, more terrible? But terrorism is spectacle. The individual kills; the ensuing cycle of attribution and blame elevates the individual to a symbol; we negotiate the meaning of that symbol, and move on. Can blame help us achieve our political aims? Sure. But there’s a price, because in the process, we invest additional power in those people whom we least want to lift up.


  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful article. I think the Aeon article linked in this piece has a significant point to make by comparing the ISIS narrative to Tolkien. Terrorists seem to identify themselves with cosmic narratives, whether racial (Dylan Roof and Anders Brevik) or religious (numerous Muslim terrorists.) By doing so, they try to transcend their ordinary and often insignificant lives. Sadly, their attempts at transcendence costs lives.

  • indigosalmon@gmail.com' ObscurelyAgnostic says:

    As a pastor, what I take from each attack is that the terrorists made them because they’re HUMAN, not because they’re religious — the genocides ordered by atheists Stalin and Pol Pot are ample proof of that …

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    For fear of going down the road for the millionth time. The difference is that Stalin or Pol Pot couldn’t justify their violence with religious texts (unless Marx is defined as such). For those that want, there are plenty of passages in these dusty old superstitious books that a person could point to to justify almost any horror.

    Yes both groups are human, but one thinks they have the ultimate authority on their side.

  • indigosalmon@gmail.com' ObscurelyAgnostic says:

    A fair point — but I don’t think the victims of genocide and war care who claims what authority to slaughter them?

  • carole645@rocketmail.com' seashell says:

    This is a thoughtful article. That underlying causes are always plural became obvious over time (to me) after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. There were many underlying causes behind the invasion, and as Paul Wolfowitz said later, “The only one we could all agree on was weapons of mass destructions”, which was the least likely cause of all.

    However, if preciseness of words matter, then using the term ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’ to describe the actions of Dylan Wolf, the Chattanooga shooter and others like them, is imprecise. As defined, terrorism is irregular warfare practiced by a group that is militarily and politically helpless against a conventional enemy such as a state. Terrorism can reflect a rational policy choice under those circumstances.¹

    People in the US are armed, just not necessarily with the facts.

    ¹ BOUNDING THE GLOBAL WAR ON TERRORISM, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, Dec. 2003 (because links not allowed).

  • carole645@rocketmail.com' seashell says:

    The victims can’t justify anything – only the perpetrators to the still living, usually in order to recruit them.

  • indigosalmon@gmail.com' ObscurelyAgnostic says:

    That’s my whole point bro — the victims are victims …

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    Agreed, it matters little post-victimization.

    But your larger point was that you can probably ignore religious influence and that the human factor is the only thing that should be considered, and I think that simplifies everything a bit too much. Everything humans do is because they are human (a tautology). The real questions are what are they trying to achieve, what component of their tribe will consider their actions morally justifiable, and by what means is it morality derived?

    I think Stalin is a bit different, but you can look at someone like Pol Pot and see how he set out to create a utopian agrarian society. What are a few million deaths to achieve utopia for eternity? Hitler was a bit along the same lines. These are all purity claims

    Religion of course has its own claims to purity. What is a bombing or shooting or unbelievers matter if you can help your true religion gain traction, and BTW – get eternal bliss as a result?

  • dtmf@bu.edu' David Frankfurter says:

    This is a very thoughtful article, yes. The one thing I’d add is that we often — one might say always — rush to make the atrocity and its perpetrator an example of some larger truth we hold and want illustrated: the intrinsic danger of Islamism, the unrecognized peril of white supremacy, the unregulated gun culture in America, or — as Trump has proposed — the murderous danger of immigrants from the south. I do think that thoughtful people try to look at these cases on their own terms, but the shock of violent atrocity and fear can take over quickly and allow the larger truth to dictate our analysis.

  • indigosalmon@gmail.com' ObscurelyAgnostic says:

    You’re right, tautologies aren’t very helpful 😉 … I should have been more precise in my language and said that religious people are no more prone to violence than non-religious people?

  • wilh3lmsen@gmail.com' Blaaaaaaaake says:

    I think most non-religious folks would agree that it’s foolish and short-sighted to claim religion as the only source of violence, but it’s still important to consider DKeane’s point: religion may not be a source of violence, but it can be a very powerful social tool for recruiting and empowering individuals to commit acts of violence for a cause. Humans commit violence, but they don’t typically do so without a banner to rally under.

    It’s not the only force of its kind; patriotism, or ideologies like Marxism or extreme environmentalism can be just as effective, but religion remains probably the most common motivating factor throughout history. That certainly doesn’t mean it is intrinsically bad, but as far as organized long-lasting social groups go, it does have a notable tendency to allow for violence if left unchecked by a 3rd-party agent like a government.

  • indigosalmon@gmail.com' ObscurelyAgnostic says:

    Great points, and thanks for weighing in … what I’m guarding against is the kind of bias against religion you’re suggesting — e.g., that (in your words), “it does have a notable tendency to allow for violence if left unchecked” … first of all, that would be true only of the fundamentalist fringe of religions … second, perhaps the best empirical metric for gauging a given ideology or theology’s potential for future violence is the sheer body count of their past violence — by that measure, the many millions slaughtered in the 20th century at the inspiration of atheist/Marxist ideologies warrants a rational bias against secular ideologies, right? … if we throw in the millions of casualties caused by the nationalist ideologies behind the two world wars (and most of the other wars since say, 1850, including the American Civil War?), then religion comes in a distant third in my book …

  • nightgaunt@graffiti.net' nightgaunt says:

    Humans are never simple. So many layers some of which are meant to mess up our own analysis of said actions.Ego has a big role to play as well of everyone involved from the killer to those who for or against the action done to the investigators, the TV networks etc. Nuance is very important yet there is literally no time to get into it. Just broad strokes, no chance for return visits when the sensation is gone to examine it. Fortunately among the news people who do is Rachel Maddow who has revisited several stories in some cases years later and spend some time on it as well. All news organizations should do so.

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