Our beheading was at a food distribution center in Moore, as if Moore hasn't had quite enough tragedy in the past few years. Alton Nolen, the murderer in question, was a recently-fired employee of the center, and he attacked two women. His brief rampage was cut short by an off-duty deputy who shot him.
Had this been a typical act of workplace violence (and how awful that the phrase is in our lexicon), people outside of Oklahoma would likely not have heard about it, as mass killings involving less than a half dozen victims rarely earn more than a cursory mention on national news anymore. A beheading, however, especially given the current international context, meant that it would absolutely make the news everywhere.
Nolen, it seems, recently converted to Islam, according to coworkers and his Facebook account, but the Muslim community in Oklahoma City was blissfully unaware of the newest member of their extended flock, and for good reason. Since the news was released that Nolen, who was released from prison in 2013, converted, locals assumed the beheading was related to Islam, and so when the FBI ruled the horrific murder an act of workplace violence and not a hate crime or domestic terrorism, conservatives howled about conspiracies and liberals and political correctness. Accuracy is always less important than ideology to a certain segment of American news consumers.
I would quote a few, select examples from local news sites, but I have found that reading comments on news websites makes me despair for humanity's future even as it encourages my desire to head up the American Committee on Eugenics. Never has a public square been more relentlessly and willfully ignorant. Truth is suffocating on the Internet from the crush of screeds and stupidity.
I would like to advance an idea that I have written about before and talked about at length with students. Unfortunately, Americans are enculturated in ways and in favor of presuppositions that make them resistant to this idea. Self-determination is built into the mythos of America, and while I am typically a proponent of the idea of letting fellow humans self-identify as to their metaphysical allegiances, we have reached a point both in this country and internationally where that is no longer a reasonable idea.
In other words, just because you call yourself something, it does not mean you are that thing. As a journalist, this is a difficult doctrine to sell, as we are supposed to report not judge, but journalists occasionally need to judge. As Americans, we are resistant to the idea of judging others' religious identification, so much so that a specific mantra is well-known and frequently invoked: "That's between her and God." Ah, yes, as if God is a ready witness in times of confusion.
Alas, gods are not available to verify your self-identification, thus the fourth commandment for Jews and Christians: you shall not take the Lord's name in vain. I know your mom told you that meant don't say, "Goddamn," or use "Jesus" like a swear word, but really, she was wrong about that. It means not to do things in the name of God that are contrary to the character of God, like underpay hookers, fail to tip your server, or behead people.
And so to the issue at hand—Mr. Nolen, the erstwhile Christian and convict turned Muslim, of a sort. Should he be allowed to call himself a Muslim, and should his act of unbelievable savagery be credited to his nascent Muslim faith? ISIS is beheading journalists much like Al Qaeda beheaded journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. Somehow, beheading has become associated with "Muslim terrorists" or "militant Islam." Therefore, it makes perfect sense that Nolen, who recently converted to Islam, was only engaging in terrorist behavior based on his Islamic faith when he beheaded his victim, a woman he apparently did not know, but who was unfortunate enough to be near the front of the building. Nothing says "jihad" like random victims, because, really, how else do you advance the cause of your God but by choosing people who have done nothing to offend your or your God?
A pretty good analogy that compares Christianity to Islam in terms of a heinous crime would be sexual crimes versus beheading. The Catholic Church is deeply embroiled in a child sex abuse scandal. While there may be the occasional person who associates the priesthood with molesting children, there is only the rare, deranged cynic who assumes all Christians are child abusers, or that child rape is endemic to Christianity, this in spite of the remarkable numbers of pastors, priests, youth pastors, camp counselors, etc., who regularly abuse children and teens.
And what of Dennis Rader, the BTK killer, who tortured and murdered ten people, all while being a member in good standing of a Lutheran Church? Is he typical of Christianity? An absolute giveaway that people aren't practicing Christianity is the judging of one's tribe by one standard while judging an opposing tribe by a different standard. Please recall Silly Jesus and his words in Matthew 7: you will be judged with whatever measure you use to judge. If Muslims are guilty because a lunatic beheads a woman and calls himself Muslim, then Christians are guilty because a pervert molests a child while calling himself priest, or a psychopath tortures and kills people while calling himself a Lutheran. (I need not even mention Eric Rudolph.)
We are at the point where people need to demonstrate their affiliation with a faith. For Muslims, submission to Allah, which means not killing innocent people, and in the case of ISIS, not killing fellow Muslims. For Christians, loving their enemies, including their real enemies, and I'm pretty sure that love precludes using drones to bomb remote locations. There is a longer list, but you get the point. Self-identification is no longer tenable. It only confuses the categories and makes faith impossible to define.
I'm willing to let faiths define their core principles, but I insist that practitioners abide by them in order to identify as that tribe, not interpret verses in such a way that they betray their core principles. If you want to be a pragmatist, by all means, be a pragmatist, but please stop hijacking gods' voices to substantiate your pragmatism.
As for the terrorism angle. The Cleveland Count District Attorney made the announcement yesterday that there are no Oklahoma statutes specifically addressing terrorism. Other than the Murrah bombing, we haven't had an act of terrorism in this state within my lifetime, unless you count racial violence, which white conservatives are terribly reluctant to do. Remember when they insisted we didn't need hate crime legislation because "there are already statutes on the books to address assault and murder." That sounds strangely familiar, except they aren't saying that this time. They are insisting that this horrific murder be treated as an act of domestic terrorism.
Why? It is impossible to avoid the obvious issues here: he is African American and a recent convert to Islam. In Oklahoma, it is safe to assume that a white male who recently converted to Christianity and subsequently murdered someone while singing Lord, I Lift Your Name on High would be treated as an insane person, not a Christian terrorist. I cannot imagine a single evangelical or fundamentalist in this state even putting the two words together, but they do it very cavalierly for Muslim terrorist and see no disconnect.
This is largely because the presence of a so-called Muslim terrorist in Oklahoma, even a homegrown one who had converted, would validate a fear-based, political worldview that many conservatives espouse, and quite likely, really believe. This is not to say that they wanted this to happen, only to point out that a terrorist who is also Muslim in the heartland gives a face to all the non-specific fears, xenophobia, and latent racism contained in the anti-Obama narratives that still have currency in many sectors of conservatism, including in a state as deeply rooted in civil religion as Oklahoma. They need Nolen to be a terrorist because that would substantiate their "be afraid, be very afraid" mentality, while also providing material for the "Obama cannot keep us safe" narrative. They also need Nolen to be a terrorist because it reinforces their prejudice against a faith they have not even tried to understand, but one they have allowed the most egregiously dishonest of faux journalists to define, not the actual practitioners of the faith. Say what you want about the American tendency toward fair-mindedness, but it's in a PVS in the American Right.
That a Christian cannot be a terrorist in their minds but a Muslim can is a by-product of their misunderstanding (to be generous) or misrepresentation (to be less generous) of Islam. Also, it's a function of allowing people, even the most deranged and murderous among us, to self-identify with no regard to what the sacred texts and doctrines actually say. Calling the beheading an act of religious terrorism does as much disservice to a billion peaceful Muslims as calling Christianity a religion of child rape does to the two billion Christians (by their own self-identification) worldwide.