I recall that when Congresswoman Griffords was shot and almost killed, a number of news outlets in the U.S. (fairly) asked the question of the extent to which Sarah Palin and her rhetoric of “targeting” certain lawmakers mattered. The reasoning was simple: that while one cannot directly “blame” Palin for the assassination attempt, violent and dehumanizing rhetoric plays a part in the ways in which others are perceived, and that this perception in turn has real, empirical consequences.
Predictably, the U.S. media is taking great pains to remind us that the Staff Sergeant responsible for the war crime in Afghanistan yesterday had mental and marital problems. The U.S. military might ask itself how somebody of that nature was “routinely tested” for brain injury as well as mental health screening and managed to pass those tests. Be that as it may, I would just note that this may have been a shocking incident but, hand on heart, it is not a surprising one.
We must remind ourselves sometimes that the American military is an American institution filled with Americans. That’s obviously a trivial point, but worth remembering. Because in America today, Islam arouses deep suspicion and hatred. Polls show that Americans feel more prejudice against Muslims than adherents of any other religion. Half of Americans polled (the true number is surely larger) don’t want a mosque built in their neighborhood. This is a country in which “he’s a secret Muslim” counts as a smear, not a mere inaccuracy. This is a country in which people leave these types of comments on internet stories on the war crime yesterday. This is a country in which Muslims are profiled by its largest police force, with the full backing of the mayor of its largest city. This is a country with two parties, one of which simply hates Muslims (good luck finding someone who watched the Republican debates who disagrees with that statement).
If I had an audience with the media members who drew connections between Palin’s rhetoric and the violence committed in Arizona, I would ask them: what makes this different? (Nothing.)
Violent and dehumanizing rhetoric has consequences. Maybe not as severe as when Griffords was shot – it’s only “towel heads” and “sand niggers” who were killed yesterday – but severe nonetheless. I’d venture to suggest the median member of the U.S. military is not terribly far in his or her views towards Muslims than the median citizen of the U.S. Thinking of this man’s actions as somehow separate, distinct, and disconnected from the wider society from which he emanates is wrongheaded, convenient, and stupid.