In the day following the San Bernardino, CA. massacre, law enforcement and the media were very cautious not to classify the incident as a terror attack. The situation was framed within the broader “gun issue” just like the “Planned Parenthood shooting” that preceded it by a few days. Reporters described the incident as “the deadliest shooting since Sandy Hook”. It was not until the identity of the suspected couple was released and a large amount of explosives was allegedly discovered in their apartment that the “Islamic Terrorism” hypothesis was openly favored by officials. They showed a remarkable amount of restraint!
After the suspects were identified as “people of Pakistani origin who recently visited Saudi Arabia”, the referent of comparison naturally changed to “since 9-11” or “since the Boston Marathon Bombing”. How do we choose the bag in which we put perpetrators of acts that we abhor? Many were motivated to ask “why not since the Charleston Church Shooting”?
There are two rules that come into play when you label the perpetrator of an act:
- First, as a labeler, you are not disinterested. In each public statement that you make, even casually, you are trying (directly or indirectly) to assert your own virtue. You actively try to minimize your distance from an actor you deem virtuous and maximize your distance from an actor that you deem non-virtuous. Say you are a strawberry and a Gala apple does something that you deem commendable, you will exclaim with pride “a fruit did it.” If it is something really really good, you will take your chances and opportunistically claim that “A red fruit did it”. If, however, it was something that you find truly horrible, you will exclaim: “Apples did it, who but apples could? Really !”
- Furthermore, it is expedient to identify a negative actor by the most general class that distinguishes it from you. If you are a vegetable with a strong sense of vegetable-supremacy over fruits, you will typically not say “apple” if “fruit” is enough and you will not say “Gala” or “Granny Smith” if “apple” is enough to spare your virtue.
With these two rules, it becomes easy to understand why a white male who massacres a dozen people with an automatic gun is reduced to his possible mental illness. His whiteness and his maleness threaten the labeler’s virtue. Therefore, the labeler has to find a property that will create a distance between them. Since the labeler considers himself sane, insanity will be enough to create a safe distance between them.
If, however, it is a Muslim couple, the labeler can simply say “Muslim Killers”, like the New York Post did. A more detailed characterization could have equally worked, but it would have come with an additional effort for the labeler, and without any perceivable return on investment. It takes real honesty and altruism for a non-Muslim today to characterize the violent extremists like AlQaeda and ISIS as anything else than Muslim.
But it seems everyone applies this rule. The general Muslims public is quickest to declare that ISIS and AlQaeda “are not Muslim” or “have nothing to do with Islam” when they are at least visibly Muslim. Some quietist Salafis will label them as the Khawarij, some traditionalists will see them as some extreme kinds Salafis, while some Shia will see them as extreme types of Sunnis, some Africans Muslims will see them as extreme Arabs, etc. We always try to pick the least costly name that distinguishes us from those whom we deem monsters.