No sooner had news broken that Craig Hicks was accused of killing three young Muslim college students in North Carolina than calls erupted for a federal hate crime investigation. The Justice Department promptly obliged.
Where was the hue and cry for such an investigation when Ali Muhammed Brown was arrested in 2014 for killing four randomly selected Americans in retaliation for civilians killed by the United States forces in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan?
“The defendant was on a bloody crusade, executing four innocent men — with the same murder weapon, over the course of approximately two months, and all under the common and single scheme of exacting ‘vengeance’ against the United States government for its foreign policies,” Seattle prosecutors accuse.
Hate crime prosecutions are theater. It’s not enough to charge a man with murder, even a death penalty offense. The community must express its special opprobrium over heinous acts committed for hateful reasons.
All sane and rational people oppose murder, the unlawful, and intentional, or, depending on the jurisdiction, depraved, taking of a human life. The law calls murder malum in se, an evil in itself. The universal instinct for self-preservation renders the murderer hateful.
Hate crime charges add a special twist. To strike out in violence against a person because of his or her actual or perceived race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, or disability is a special form of social evil, or so the law says.
But this extra dollop of prosecution is a political gesture. Somehow it seems more acceptable to charge a non-descript Caucasian atheist with a hate crime than it does to charge his Muslim counterpart. Why?
The question is important as we enter the mid-point of the second decade after 9/11. The war on terror is not ending anytime soon. As events in Copenhagen and Paris, and, as Mr. Ali’s case in Seattle makes clear, streets will run with blood for the foreseeable future. Sometimes, the bloodshed will be on our streets.
If Hicks’ alleged crime was inspired by hatred, then so was Brown’s. In the Brown case, we even have a confession that victims were selected because of their status, their accidents of birth.
I suspect our reluctance to charge hate crimes against Muslims striking out in violence is due to a sense of solicitude to their status as a minority. Estimates of the number of Muslims in the United States range from as low as 5 million to as many as 12 million people out of a total population of about 320 million. It’s unsporting to pick on the weak.
But I also suspect something deeper, and potentially more sinister, is at work. Could it be that we’ve lost the instinct to defend ourselves and our ideals?
Last year, Harvard University Press published a new book with an arresting title: “Inventing Individualism: The Origins of Western Liberalism.” I read a review, and my heart sank. The author, Larry Siedentop, advances the argument that liberalism is the child of Christianity. The very mention of the hypothesis put me in a Bible-burning frame of mind: What about the Inquisition? The crazy contortions of fundamentalism? The early modern wars of religion?
Siedentop, a fellow at Keble College, Oxford, takes aim at the standard narrative arc of Western intellectual history. That arc goes something like this: After the glory that was Greece, the West settled into administrative mediocrity during the Roman republic and empire.
It all came crumbling down during the early Middle Ages, after the empire had converted to Christianity. Then came the Dark Age, where learning was nearly extinguished and the Church dominated Europe. We were rescued by the rebirth of classical learning during the Renaissance, the dead weight of religion cast off with finality during the Enlightenment.
Today we live in a world of discovery and endless possibility, for both good and ill, thanks to the triumph of reason. Ours is an era of individual conscience, human rights and respect for persons.
Not so fast, Siedentop says. What if the classical world was one of entrenched hierarchy? What if it took the Church and its quest to save individual souls to sculpt a robust sense of individual possibility? What if secularism, the now godless embrace of life’s diversity and agnosticism about life’s larger ends, is but the offshoot of Paul’s, Augustine’s and William of Occam’s teachings?
“The Origins of Western Liberalism” is a tantalizing read. Siedentop relies on respected scholarship to advance his hypothesis that secularism’s disdain for its origins is the real heresy. We are all heirs to a Christian heritage, he argues.
Grand intellectual histories such as this are heady. Tracing historical causation is less science that creative reconstruction of the past. We are all of us the sum of millennia of history: Culture, civilization, is the work of countless minds struggling against contingency.
What motivated Siedentop to defend the cross? He’s not an evangelist working to save souls. He’s a scholar.
Siedentop refers to the challenge posed by Islam and the call to replace secular law with shariah, or Islamic, law. He suggests that losing sight of the deeper roots of Western culture and law might come at a cost — the inability to defend what we value most. Secularism, a Christian heresy, might leave us naked in the battle of ideals, afraid to stand against something, and for ourselves. We’re naked in the whirlwind of our times.
Perhaps that’s why we are so discriminate in our calls for hate crime prosecutions. It’s almost as though we are apologizing for ourselves lest we offend different heritages.
I despise violent Islam. Folks I’ve never met want me dead simply because of who I am. If there is to be a war based on ideas and ideologies, ought we refuse to engage on a level playing field, pitting belief against belief?
Siendentop suggests we lost this war long ago, and just don’t know it yet. I hope he is not right. I find myself saying with the father in Mark’s Gospel: “I believe, help though my unbelief.”