Unintended causation

Is there a causal link between racially-motivated violence by individuals and U.S. foreign policy?

Published August 8, 2012 12:09PM (EDT)

The alleged shooter of the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, Wade Michael Page, served in the U.S. Army from 1992 to 1998, first at a base in Texas and then at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. An article in The Guardian today examines Page's time in the military and includes this passage:

Page did well enough after joining in 1992 to be assigned to a psychological operations unit at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The unit is regarded in the US military as exclusive.

But at the time Fort Bragg was also a recruiting centre for white hate groups including the National Alliance, once regarded as one of the most effective such groups and also among the most extreme because it openly glorified Adolf Hitler. The Military Law Review at the time reported that National Alliance flags were openly hung in barracks and, out of uniform, soldiers sported neo-Nazi symbols and played records about killing blacks and Jews.

"White supremacists have a natural attraction to the army," the Military Law Review said. "They often see themselves as warriors, superbly fit and well-trained in survivalist techniques and weapons and poised for the ultimate conflict with various races."

Is that perception on the part of white supremacists irrational: that joining the U.S. military is an optimal way to engage in, or train for, "conflict with various races"? It's very hard to make the case that it is. There is ample evidence both of white supremacists' encouraging adherents to join the U.S. military as well as those groups targeting service members for recruitment. It goes without saying that the vast, vast majority of members of the U.S. military are not members of white supremacist groups (indeed, only 62% of enlisted service members are non-Hispanic whites, though minorities are seriously underrepresented in the officer class). If anything, the attempt to Christianize the U.S. military is a greater problem than avowed members of racist groups joining the military (though those problems are arguably related). But whatever else is true, even the U.S. military's own publication has recognized that "white supremacists have a natural attraction to the army."

For all the endless chatter -- and endless rights erosions -- over the threat of Terrorism from Muslims, the reality is that there have been more Terror attacks on U.S. soil in the past decade committed by white, "right-wing extremists" than by Muslims. Philosophy Professor Falguni Sheth today provocatively argues that this spate of racially-motivated violence is directly connected to the decade-plus-long War on Terror that the U.S. has perpetrated.

Sheth begins by pointing to a mosque in Joplin, Missouri that yesterday was burned to the ground -- the third fire on its property and "the second fire to hit the Islamic center in little more than a month" -- and argues that our perceptions of violence are overwhelmingly dependent on the identity of the perpetrator ("those white guys are loners; those young white/Asian men are troubled and deranged loners. Those brown men are terrorists. Those black men are hoodlums and gangmembers"); Conor Friedersdorf makes a similar claim quite persuasively. But the bulk of Sheth's argument is devoted to the claim that the underlying precepts of America's foreign policy engender -- if not tacitly justify -- this sort of violence. I'm not adopting her argument in full, but it's difficult to deny the causal connection she highlights:

Other truths must also be confronted. In large part, the shooters and arsonists who are behind many, if not most of these events in America, are white men.  In large part, these men have either come of age in the shadow of September 11. They have watched the media, heard Department of Homeland Security officials, and followed as mostly white male (and some female) politicians have given the anxious go ahead to wage an enormous war against Muslims abroad (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan) or at home (in the form of the War on Terror).  Several of them have served in a military that follows the orders of two U.S. Presidential administrations by training their men to shoot, invade, drop rockets from helicopters, and drones controlled remotely from Syracuse, NY and other air force bases in the United States.

These white men have learned their lessons well, whether in the military or from hours of media news: the frustrations of a scared (white) America can be dealt with waging a war using guns, bombs, chemicals, and drones.  They have learned that it is ok to kill those who you believe to be behind threats to your comfort. They have internalized the message that those you fear can be addressed without words, without dialogue, but with violence, with power, with coercion. They have learned that some religions are automatically evil and that those who adhere to those religions must be destroyed.  And these white men reflect an ideology of violence that has permeated America in the name of the War on Terror. Sadly, that ideology, perpetuated by our white men and women in power, carried out by American soldiers, and endorsed by a lapdog media, isn’t fading away. It’s becoming bigger, stronger, and more murderous.

These men are not mad or crazy.  They are the well-trained students of American foreign and domestic policies. They have learned well the United States’ message: that violence and mayhem are the answer.  We need to change the scripts, and confront the fallout of a decade of the War on Terror—and other excuses for state-led violence quickly, before the chickens come home to roost.

The reason I'm hesitant fully to endorse this argument is that there are usually a diverse array of complex motives (psychological, emotional, ideological, religious) that drive individuals to engage in violence of this sort, and an equally diverse list of complex causes (legislative, political, cultural) as to why our society fosters and enables it. For that reason, I'm generally averse to seizing on a horrific episode, particularly in the immediate aftermath, and using it to try to isolate a single cause or confirm long-held beliefs.

That said, there's no denying the strangeness of our collective reactions -- intense outrage, laced with professed bafflement -- to incidents like the Sikh shooting, or the mosque burning. It just is true that the U.S. is a country that has spent the last decade using massive amounts of violence in multiple Muslim countries: continuously bombing, invading, attacking, droning, and killing. In that part of the world, the U.S. government regularly kills innocent men, women and children (almost always non-whites), and has bombed mosques, attacked funerals and mourners, and targeted media outlets for violence and killed their journalists.

There are some significant, obvious differences between state-sanctioned violence in the name of war and the rogue, indiscriminate killing by individuals, and it's best not to ignore those differences in order to try to equate these acts. But Sheth's primary point -- that it's difficult and perhaps even inconsistent to so righteously condemn things like the Sikh shooting or mosque burning while cheering for endless violence by the U.S. government against other nations filled with innocent people of races and religions different than one's own-- is not one that is easily dismissed. If the Military Law Review is willing to examine the attraction the U.S. military holds for white supremacists, the rest of us should be willing to do so as well.

And whatever else is true, it's impossible to evade the fact that Endless War will inevitably degrade the citizenry of the country that engages in it. A country which venerates its military above all other institutions, which demands that its soldiers be spoken of only with religious-like worship, and which continuously indoctrinates its population to believe that endless violence against numerous countries is necessary and just -- all by instilling intense fear of the minorities who are the target of that endless violence -- will be a country filled with citizens convinced of the virtues and nobility of aggression.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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