In America, Violent Extremism Will Get You a Medal

In America, Violent Extremism Will Get You a Medal

Quick – what do ISIS and Chris Kyle have in common? Nothing, you say? How could I even think to compare a good, patriotic American with a bloodthirsty group of terrorists, you say? What on earth is wrong with me, you say? Bear with me here: I’d argue that there is little difference between the violence committed by Chris Kyle and the violent extremism indulged in by ISIS.

Take Chris Kyle’s words:

I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over all my sins. “Mr. Kyle, let’s go into the backroom. . . .” Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day. But what I lean toward is that you know all of your sins, and God knows them all, and shame comes over you at the reality that He knows. I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation. But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.

And now take a statement by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the official spokesman of ISIS:

If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.

Is there really much difference there, beyond our own artificial perspective? Islam is a violent religion, we say, peculiarly vulnerable to the extremism of groups such as ISIS. Even when Christianity takes an extreme turn, we don’t hear of Christian terrorists beheading reporters or bombing schools.

And it’s true. Sure, there is no shortage of hateful rhetoric coming from the fringes of American Christianity.  And sure, perhaps that rhetoric might be inspiring some horrific laws in other countries. And sure, there are a few isolated cases where individuals moved beyond mere rhetoric and into bloodshed. But on the whole, no matter how hateful the rhetoric, it’s not as though it is inspiring anyone to go about lopping off heads or slaughtering children, right?

Well, not exactly.

The Army is recruiting for a “Mission For God.” A general speaks of war in explicitly religious terms. The Air Force Academy is a hotbed of evangelical Christianity. The linkage between violence and Christianity is an unavoidable component of our military. And let’s not forget that nationalism, taken to an extreme, can act as a religion. What are the mystical Fatherland or Motherland or Homeland but gods of our own creation? The worship of these gods is as vulnerable to violent extremism as any other religion, and it too is sanctioned and welcomed by the military. But that violent extremism is acceptable if it is placed into a nice, safe structure, and harnessed in the service of good.

That’s the thing. In America, we have a state sanctioned outlet for extremism, whether that extremism comes from good old-fashioned Christianity or from the new religion of hyper-patriotism. And, should you indulge your violent urges within the context of that state sanctioned outlet, you’ll get yourself a medal. Shit, maybe even a book deal. And sure, some people might criticize you, but just as many will call you a hero and will jump to attack your critics in a way that, oddly enough, also partakes in violent extremism. We have structures built to channel violent extremism in an “acceptable” manner, and it is rare that anyone questions this. As long as you are killing for Jesus, America, and apple pie, you’re cool.

By contrast, in the Middle East, these “acceptable channels” for extremism don’t exist. Extremism is channeled into the sort of nasty asymmetric warfare that we’re now seeing in Iraq and Syria. “War,” said General William Tecumseh Sherman, “is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” When you’re on the short end of the asymmetric warfare stick, the stark cruelty of war is all the harder to hide and will be all the more unacceptable in the eyes of the world.

This is the same kind of thinking that underlies our usage of “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” as a cynical shorthand for “violently disagrees with the US” and “violently agrees with the US.” The difference is that, in this case, we ourselves are the subject of this analysis, and it is our own violent extremism that is cynically labeled as acceptable and obscured behind a veneer of heroic patriotism. And then we sit back and smugly ask why Islam is so violent and why Christian extremism never much goes beyond rhetoric.

Let’s stop pretending that violent extremism is nonexistent or rare in America. It is every bit as present, every bit as virulent, and every bit as destructive as that found in Yemen or Saudi Arabia or Syria. We have simply found  what we pretend are acceptable ways to channel that violence. That is nothing to be proud of.

Image: Creative Commons