Nothing Brings out the Worst in Andrew Sullivan like Islamic Terrorism

The Dish, an invaluable aggregator of news, opinions, and general interest minutia, to which I am a subscriber, has been more blindly emotional and demagogic than usual in recent days.

The Tsarnaevs’ bombing of the Boston Marathon last week, and the ensuing manhunt, set Twitter and the national news media into a frenzy. I, like many others, could pay attention to little else but the unfolding real-life spectacle. But for some, the events of the past week have been more profound. They are part of an ongoing legacy of terrorism, religious fanaticism, and wars which necessarily have no end.

For Sullivan and others, they fit into a well-worn geopolitical narrative, a story about the clash of civilizations, the world-historic evolution of liberal democracy and secular cosmopolitanism.  Or something like that. How else to explain his virulent armchair psycho-analyzing of last week’s bombing and the two responsible for it?

What alarms me isn’t that intelligent people like Sullivan think the bombing is an act of jihad, a terrorist plot inspired by certain strands of Islamic belief, but how eager they are to assume it as the core motivation, and to add it as another data point to their neat and coherent picture of “Islamic terrorism.” It’s the understandable but irrational desire to simplify the world and let the details run bleeding into one another that is so dangerous—that gives us Iraq, Afghanistan, and the continued bombing of people around the world.

Yes, Of Course It Was Jihad,” writes Sullivan. Per Sullivan there’s a lot of nuance to this story, a lot to learn, and a lot of motivations at play, but none of that matters because something, something, something, look at this “liberal self-parody” from Glenn Greenwald.

As is his preferred mode of argument, Sullivan admits what his opponent says but then turns around right away to claim something that is tangentially contradictory to it.  “Legally, the case for the presumption of innocence is absolutely right. But come on.”

Since Sullivan expects “come on” in italics to speak for itself, I’ll let it do the same.

In addition to the accurate accusations of bombing and shooting, Sullivan also blames the Tsarnaevs for shutting down the city. This small detail is notable, I think, in so far as it hints at just how deranged Sullivan’s reasoning is on this topic. The city and federal government responded to the manhunt as both entities saw fit. That included shutting quasi-shutting down Boston for a day. To locate the Tsarnaevs as the perpetrators of that event is to endow them with a power and agency that is disproportionate. It’s to play into the fetishizing of vulnerability which, in its ultimate forms, leads countries to spend more resources combating phantoms than more likely causes of death and destruction (environmental crises, everyday homicides, lack of access to good health care, etc.).

The kicker (note another use of the “yes, but not yes” construction):

“And yes, of course, this decision to commit horrific crimes may be due in part to ‘some combination of mental illness, societal alienation, or other form of internal instability and rage that is apolitical in nature.’ But to dismiss the overwhelming evidence that this was also religiously motivated – a trail that now includes a rant against his own imam for honoring Martin Luther King Jr. because he was not a Muslim – is to be blind to an almost text-book case of Jihadist radicalization, most likely in the US. Tamerlan may have been brimming with testosterone as he found boxing an outlet for his aggression, bragging to his peers of his coolness and machismo and piety, and all of that may have contributed. Who knows if the delay in his citizenship application because he was beating his wife was the proximate cause. But does Glenn wonder why Tamerlan thought it was ok to beat his wife, whom he demanded convert to Islam?”

Sullivan has to show that religious extremism was the main motivation, and that this extremism which evolved into massive harm to other people was made uniquely possible by Tamerlan’s Islamic beliefs. I’m not sure whether he never attempts to show this because a) he can’t, or b) he doesn’t in fact know what is required for him to substantiate his grossly overstated claims, because, in the end, they’re so obviously true–I mean: come. on.

Sullivan focuses on the young man’s anger and alienation. I too often feel angry and alienated, feelings the depths of which are too vast to explore here. I have never done, or thought about doing, what Tamerlan did though. For Sullivan it seems that Islam is an ideology uniquely suited to catalyzing this anger and turning it into violence (though of course Sullivan will be the first to argue that atheists can be just as ideologically prone to destructive behavior. See: Stalin).

He says things like, “When will some understand how dangerous religious fundamentalism truly is?” But I don’t think he means religious fundamentalism more generally—after all, Sullivan, as far as I know, believes that Christ is the son of God and died for his sins. That is the fundamental tenet of Catholicism. That makes Sullivan a fundamentalist Catholic. Of course, if Sullivan is willing to admit that there are degrees, and types, and that really this question of religious fundamentalism is extremely complex, he would have to find a new target for his baseless war mongering.

Sullivan has always had a double-standard when it comes to his religion vs. other religions. His monotheism “entirely eschews violence,” where as Islam does not. Is that a claim with which his fellow Catholics would agree? Is that a reformed interpretation of Catholicism? Is that a claim based exclusively on Sullivan’s unique reading of the religious texts upon which his religion is based? And if we’re to take all of these things into account—how can we possibly make such blanket statements about a religion that is so much more decentralized and doctrine-less?

“This was an act of Jihad,” writes Sullivan, and one that “only makes sense in the context of immediate Paradise, combined with worldly fame.” How small his imagination must be. But that’s not surprising, given how small an imagination is required to take on such a narrow and impulsive world view in the first place.

[Update I]–Sullivan calls Kevin Drum’s attempt to take a step back, “high-minded nonsense.”

A textbook case (as Sullivan likes to say) of demogugery,

“But just as silly as jumping to conclusions prematurely is the posture of aloof skepticism when the bleeding obvious is staring right at you.”

Thank God someone’s willing to cut through the PC crap and tell the simple truths.

[Update II]–Freddie calls for a logician, and one of the Dish readers makes the point better than I,

“How many contingencies do you have to stuff into the interpretation and practice of a religion before you realize those contingencies matter a hell of a lot more than the words in the document everyone’s reading into in whatever way suits their condition? What a logically, linguistically, and sociologically inept attempt to baldly enforce your double standards of religious causation upon your readers.”

Sullivan counters with a series of dubious distinctions between Christianity and Islam.

[Update III]–Sullivan triples (quadruples?) down on calling out “liberal bullshit on Islam,”

“Bill Maher backs me up. I’m not Islamophobic; I’m trying to tell the truth and understand what happened last week.”

[Update IV]–Corey Robin knows it,

incantaton

 

[Update V]–Sullivan goes another round with Greenwald, this time bemoaning the latter’s “see-no-evil” approach, and enlisting the emotional appeal of a blood-splattered Boston street,

“I have massive amounts of evidence, outraged testimonies from the family, a horrifying web history, bombs that follow to the letter instructions from an al Qaeda publication, public, extremist spats with his own mosque, and on and on.”

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96 thoughts on “Nothing Brings out the Worst in Andrew Sullivan like Islamic Terrorism

  1. Good stuff, Ethan.

    As is our habit with one another, though, I am going to pick some nits:

    *Andrew Sullivan is many things but a Catholic fundamentalist is not one of them.

    * I haven’t been reading him this week too diligently, but I’ve been reading him for years. He’s got as many flaws as the rest of us, but I think he’s actually been pretty good on calling out religious zealotry, no matter whether it’s Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, etc.,

    *Last point, I think we dismiss the idea that a certain kind of Islam speaks to a certain type of person in a certain frame of mind at our own peril. Not to say I think there’s anything intrinsically violent about Islam, but there is something intrinsically violent about the Islamist-extremist understanding of Jihad. To bring up an analog that hopefully sidelines a lot of the (justifiable) racial concerns with this issue: there’s nothing inherently violent about German culture; but there was a period in time when a certain kind of German culture contributed — not created, but contributed — to violence.

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    • I gotta agree with Elias here. I think you were pretty on target but you flew right off the rails on your third and second to last two paragraphs. Sully most assuredly doesn’t spare Christians from the vitrol he levies at religious fundamentalism. We’re talking about the author of the term Christianist for god(ess?)’s sake.

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    • On Catholic fundamentalism, the point is more to draw out the ridiculousness of a phrase like fundamentalism, which is applied so inconsistantly and without clear definition. What beliefs are sufficient to be a fundamentalist? I’m sure Sullivan knows–though without any strong argument on why certain distinctions count, I’m sure it will also be unconvincing.

      I think his calling out of zealotry has always been consistant with his own beliefs about what’s right and wrong, what’s damaging and what’s not, where the public sphere gives way to the private sphere. Which is to say that I don’t see a clear standard in those attacks and see many other behaviors which I would ascribe to a religiosity which Sullivan would ascribe to a fundamentalist take on that religiosity. Bombing abortion clinics for instance. For Sullivan that act itself, when committed by a christian in the name of christianity, demands it be perpetrated by a religious fanatic, where as I see it as the necessary enactment of a belief one is committed to (what I’m really getting at here is that whereas Sullivan categorises himself as a secular religous person, I categorize him only as secular).

      I agree with your last point–and think the nuance of it is precisely what makes it so damn hard to argue in a well-supported way, and one that Sullivan has not the time to, lest he miss an opportunity to lock some blog excerpts behind a porous paywall.

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      • I think Ethan is right on here; and however many times I’ve promised not to write into The Dish, I had to break that promise at this whole “come on, it was religion, Islam is more violent” cha-cha-cha that Sullivan falls into all too easily.

        The worst part is that, in a few weeks, Sullivan will come back and say, “maybe I was wrong in some ways, but it was an emotional moment and I was thinking in real time.” For a guy who was so recently and so publicly self-flagellating over his role in the Iraq War, you’d think he might have learned a thing or two.

        All I know is, I’m glad that, as a liberal, I have access to a magical device (or spell) that gives me more time to think about things so that I’m not always having to come back later with some half-assed mea culpa.

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        • Ima sign on with Benjamin, North and Elias on this, Ethan.

          First off, definitely a stellar post. Top to finish it was great… except for the bit about Sullivan being a Catholic fundamentalist/not calling out Christians/etc. But, y’know, if that’s the only nit to pick, it shows how solid this was.

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          • I’ll take the props where I can get them : )

            As stated above, I find Sullivan deeply disingenous on religious fanaticism. Being moderately religious is a contradiction in terms to me–though for Sullivan it’s what distinguishes Islam from Christianity: the latter has more moderate strains.

            In so far as Sullivan isn’t a religious fundamentalist it’s because he defines fundamentalism as X, and religion as Y.

            As pointed out in this conversation (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcXJF2445AE) I think Sullivan isn’t a fundamentalist in so far as he’s not actually religious, not because he has different religious beliefs.

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            • Did you mean (or rather did you mean Sullivan means) there are more (numerical) strains of Moderate Christianity or the strains themselves were moderate?

              I’ve met some pretty moderate Muslims. Sadly, they look just like everyone else and rarely make the news.

              Which is really a problem with any grouping — the crazy, loud, extreme ones get all the PR and people tend to associate them with the group as a whole.

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        • BenjaminJB: “you’d think he might have learned a thing or two.”

          Perhaps the main lesson he’s learned is that a (to this point quite sufficiently) large-ish number of readers and colleagues will be held or captured by the method that you describe in the previous sentence. Here we have Mr. Gach, a smart and skeptical writer but one who also identifies himself as a Sully subscriber, who’s riding the downstroke to the limit. Some of us get flung off the contraption somewhere around this point, but others hold on or get drawn in for the upstroke.

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      • Fundamentalists obey the commandments of their religions. That would seem to be the standard, nu? Just how many reasonable Islamic scholars and imams have to issue fataawa condemning terrorism before folks quit saying these bombers are Fundamentalists? They aren’t. It’s explicitly forbidden in the Qur’an.

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  2. Excitable Andy is excitable.

    So last night I’m standing out in front of the Kwik-ee Mart on Metairie Road. A Kurdish guy is washing out the Squishee machine. A guy from Bangladesh had walked over from the pizza joint. A little boy is running around, splashing in the soapy water. So we strike up the “where are you from” conversation. I ask if they go to the masjid up on Esplanade. The Kurd did, the Bangladeshi guy went to the masjid on the West Bank.

    I said, “Y’know, there are three things I admire about Islam. One, it’s clean. Two, it’s democratic, no popes and suchlike. Three, it’s charitable. I just wanted you to hear one white non-Muslim guy say something good about Islam. Nobody is these days. You’re here in America, where people can believe as they please. Don’t forget that. This is America and you belong here, too.”

    The Kurd looks up from washing the machine with an angelic look on his face I can’t quite describe. The Bangladeshi beams and holds his son to him.

    Walked back over here and climbed the stairs to my apartment. Maybe I was condescending to them but I don’t think so. I think they needed to hear that. Millions upon millions of ordinary people, possessed of a fund of human kindness — how dare we consign the people of a thousand tribes and dozens of nations to the garbage heap of Fundamentalism? That same fundamentalism also compels millions of Muslims to charity and sanctity and every good work. Islam absolutely forbids the murder of innocents. It gave us the concept of war crimes and was the first ideology to do so. Whatever compelled the Tsarnaevs was not Fundamentalism but its exact opposite, Nihilism. High time we said that, too.

    Islam is terribly simple. There’s not much to believe. A great deal to comprehend about that faith but the sum of its theology can be reduced to a single sentence. Islam has been used as a tool of oppression precisely because it’s so open to interpretation: almost every aspect of Islam you’ll ever see is cultural. I have been the recipient of Muslim courtesy: would that other faiths were as charitable, to the point where Islam has become a way of being, inseparable from the cultures which adopted it.

    Excitable Andy has well and truly shat his britches on this one. Any student of culture and Islamic peoples knows they have been horribly governed. The Chechens are a case study in just such oppression. If their anger emerges with an Islamic tinge to it, as so much anger has of late, the only rational conclusion from history is to observe these cultures really have been oppressed.

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      • The Abrahamic Three are all interested in cleanliness. Judaism has its mikveh, Christianity has baptism — but Islam really demands a higher standard of cleanliness: you must wash before praying. Like Judaism, Islam is also concerned with sanitary food, to the point where Muslims and Orthodox Jews are seen in line at the same halal / kosher shops. The standards are quite similar and it’s not hard to get both certifications.

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  3. I confess I’m not entirely sure what to think of this post, but I guess the first question I’d have is how often do you actually read Sullivan if you believe that he excuses Christian excess and cheers Islamaphobes?

    Pick any day of his posts over the past two years and I’ll bet you there is a least half a dozen posts criticizing Christian fundamentalists (or “Christianists,” to use Sullivan’s phrase) and few if any criticizing Muslims. In fact, I’d be willing to bet if you tallied you’d find at least a two-to-one ratio of posts criticizing “Christianists” for demonizing Muslims than you’d find criticisms of any Muslims.

    As for the rest, it seems to me you’re not allowing for enough real estate between Pamela Gellar and the argument that in 2013 that there is no discernible difference between the threats posed by Islamic fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists. Dismissing any and all explanations for an attack that doesn’t fall into a “All Muslims Are Evil” narrative seems silly and driven primarily by ideologically (as opposed to being driven by evidence); but so too does putting an “Islamaphobia” label on any acknowledgement that in 2013 a public bombing of civilians has an astronomically greater statistical chance of being perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalist extremists than anyone else.

    And I think you’ll find that Sullivan does not display the Geller-esque foible that Islam is by it’s nature more violent and smothering than other religions. He’s written pretty extensively about how geopolitical forces, the number of theocratic states, backlash against heinous actions from the West, and other positions of lack of privilege have created the circumstances that allow one set of fundamentalists to create the Promise Keepers and another to execute women unilaterally for adultery.

    As I say, I think you need to allow for more real estate between a Geller and a Sullivan.

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    • Tod,

      I don’t remember Sullivan using “Christianist” when discussing Roeder’s killing of Tiller or affording Breivik the honor of being considered a crusader/martyr. In fact, one of the big problems with Sullivan is that he has coined a special term for fundamentalist Christians that specifically denies them (a) a position within mainstream Christianity and (b) denies them the position of honor they seek as religious holy warriors.

      But when it comes to Islam, he’s happy to throw around the word “jihad.”

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        • Thanks for the correction. Although, let’s note: he connected Roeder with “far right Christianist domestic terrorism”–no danger of mixing that up with Christianity or even non-terrorist Christianists. But with that slight caveat on my part, you’re right. That boshes the first part of my comment.

          Now if Andrew’ll just invent a similar word for Muslims engaged in terror–something that draws a distinction between the mainstream religion and those engaged in something else. (Unless, as seems likely, he thinks that mainstream Islam is more dangerous and worse. Which seems to be the charge that Tod wants to defend him against or nuance by noting the difference between Geller and Sullivan on this topic.)

          One of my big complaints with Sullivan in this issue is that he’s not really interested in discussing nuance, as Ethan noted: “come on” isn’t a nuanced argument, it’s George Bush-level decidering. Sure, Sullivan’s not as reprehensible as Geller, but his use of “jihad” rather than, say, “Islamicist domestic terrorism” is in line with a biased view of Islam.

          And it gives too much credence to any “culture clash” blah-de-blah cherished by fundamentalists of many religions.

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          • Sully on Brevik:

            But Christianist? Breivik’s picture should accompany the term in any dictionary. Christianism is all about power over others, and it has been fueled in the last decade by its mirror image, Islamism, and motivated to fury by hatred of what it sees as is true enemy, liberalism. Both Islamism and Christianism, to my mind, do not spring from real religious faith; they spring from neurosis caused by lack of faith. They are the choices of those who are panicked by the complexity and choices of modernity into a fanatical embrace of a simplistic parody of religion in order to attack what they see as their cultural and social enemies. They are not about genuine faith; they are about the instrumentality of faith as a political bludgeon.

            The annoying thing about Sullivan is that, when one of his many buttons isn’t being pushed, his heart really is in the right place.

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            • Heh, I was about to quote that paragraph as an interesting comparison between C and I.

              As for Sullivan’s buttons, I can’t forget his opining on “The War on Women”–“I hate the term “war on women”. It’s so hackish and echoes with the kind of liberal screechiness that backfires with everyone else.”–followed very quickly by his post about the GOP and homosexuals titled, natch, “The GOP’s War on Gays.”

              It’s like he stays in shape by exercising his biases.

              But, yeah, he’s not always wrong, like your Jennifer Rubins and your Daniel Pipes. And I fully expect that in a week or so he’ll say “I’ve thought more about this and I think I overstated things here and here”–and then he’ll go back to his usual buttons.

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    • To my knowledge I didn’t call Sullivan Islamaphobic.

      I regard the claim that Islam, or more strains of Islam than strains of brand X, include beliefs or elements which make their adherents more prone to terrorism or violence against civilians as a completely valid claim.

      What I take issue with is how flagrantly Sullivan disregards the need to actually support that claim with actual evidence, rather than associated information; with arguments that point toward motivating factors.

      “And I think you’ll find that Sullivan does not display the Geller-esque foible that Islam is by it’s nature more violent and smothering than other religions.”

      I think that is precisely what he thinks. Some preliminary evidence for that belief: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Secular-Philosophies/Is-Religion-Built-Upon-Lies.aspx
      http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2012/04/24/religions-new-violence/

      Perhaps we can discuss that claim more though if you help me unpack specifically what you mean by, “but so too does putting an “Islamaphobia” label on any acknowledgement that in 2013 a public bombing of civilians has an astronomically greater statistical chance of being perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalist extremists than anyone else.”

      If not to any inherent part of Islam, what would you attribute this disproportionate probability to?

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      • “Is there something especially important about bombings?”

        Bombings per se? No, or at least not that I’m aware of.

        Bombings in a public, crowded, and secular space? Events in the US and Europe over the past 20 years would suggest that there is, as would bombings of medical facilities that practice reproductive health.

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      • Suppose we take Andrew Sullivan’s and Rod Dreher’s self-stroking assertions about the final differences between Islam and Christianity “seriously”: Suppose we begin with their notion that Islam is problematically different because the Prophet was also a warrior. We immediately encounter the problem that this final and for Sullivan and Dreher crucial ideological difference appears to have made, overall, the opposite actual difference from the one we might have expected, and that Islamic war, in particular its comparatively trivial and mainly intra-Islamic manifestations in so-called terrorism, hardly even registers as a magnitude in carnage or ferocity in comparison to Christian or Christianate warfare. Quite typically, this fact can be instantaneously converted from a point of shame to a point of pride for us. Real existing Christianate states are based on a schizoid relationship between their own existence or operations and their self-justifications, and this relationship can be tied to the foundational antinomies of the faith.

        Without attempting the further analysis of this problematic here, we can simply observe for now that the same tendencies that result in a displaced extremism – the terrorism, that cannot be called terrorism, of war and war-by-other-means – can be heard in voices like Sullivan’s and Dreher’s. We never quite fully detach ourselves from their approach, from the attractions of such hypocrisy, because we are generally un-treated patients under the same syndrome, given to habitual, self-sustaining denial of our own implication in and dependence on systems of violence that our morality or supposed morality supposedly condemns. Since Sullivan and Dreher insist on singling out Islam, it’s fair to to speak up for it in particular: At least Islam and the traditions of the Qur’an confront this tendency, and offer models for controlling and subduing it, instead of imagining it away and ensuring that it returns, magnified catastrophically.

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  4. In Sullivan bingo, who had “I’m just trying to cut through your bias and tell the truth”?

    Something something mote something something beam in your own eye.

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  5. Someone should really work out the Bayesian predictivity of terrorism given Islam, Islam given terrorism, and the rest. Might be a fun exercise for a post someday.

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  6. But to dismiss the overwhelming evidence that this was also religiously motivated – a trail that now includes a rant against his own imam for honoring Martin Luther King Jr. because he was not a Muslim – is to be blind to an almost text-book case of Jihadist radicalization

    So the proof that he’s been religiously indoctrinated is that he ranted against his religious adviser?

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    • Depends on the rant. If the rant is of the form “you people are all liars! The earth is older than 6000 years old!”, we can assume that his spiritual development went one way. If the rant is of the form “How dare you honor Martin Luther King Jr, a non-Muslim?”, we can make somewhat different assumptions about how his faith is maturing.

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  7. You know who else are terrorists?

    Irish Catholics.

    It’s caused by their religion.

    Also, they’re violent wife beaters and drunks, again caused by their religion:

    http://www.irishtimes.com/news/domestic-violence-figures-horrific-1.751278

    Hmmm….

    That sounds pretty awful when I say it about Irish people and/or Catholics. But I guess it is okay to say it about brown people Muslims. I guess.

    So it is just as awful to say it about Muslims or Arabs.

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    • Agreed. If he had said that about Muslims it would be pretty awful. Pity he doesn’t say that. In fact he says the opposite:
      “So we see perhaps the core of what is in front of our noses: this was not about Islam or being Muslim as such. Look at Tamerlan’s family and his own imam. They all saw a young man drifting into something far more extremist, fundamentalist and bigoted. His uncle saw it:”

      Sully goes on to make some rather incoherent assertion that reads to me like he’s counting jihadism as something seperate from Islam, something more akin to fundamentalism in general. He certainly isn’t, however, lobbing bombs at Muslims or Islam in general.

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      • This is true I think.

        Part of my problem is that Sullivan likes to create distinctions between things where it suits him, like jihadism and Islam, secular christianity and Christianism…as a way of singling out the stuff he disagrees with.

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      • I get that he didn’t say that.

        Did fundamentalist Catholicism cause the IRA to bomb? Did the bombers bomb because of what Jesus and the Bible says? Maybe, maybe not. But I’d guess Sullivan would say no.

        Some people said Catholicism was a cause, but there was no reason to believe that. The violence may have been entirely political and not at all religious. Religion may have been an excuse after the fact.

        I think fundamentalist religion is pernicious to society, but we must take more care than Sullivan when stating the causal connections between bad behaviors and holding of certain religious beliefs, lest we contribute to unfounded racial and religious stereotypes.

        I get that Sullivan wants to blame fundamentalist Islam, and not all of Islam, for certain acts of terrorist violence. That is better than blaming all of Islam. But even that is unsubstantiated.

        IMO, there is a lot of pop sociology going on and all of it is BS. If you want to draw causal connections between, say, religious beliefs and spree killing, you have to work for it. You don’t get to just hypothesize and say it sounds truish, so therefore it is proven. And this kind of pop sociology is a dangerous thing in that it can lead to the worst kind of stereotyping.

        And Sullivan does want to say that Islam is more pernicious than Christianity, and I don’t think he is only holding his attack to fundamentalist Islam in that regard.

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    • Maybe spree killings are caused by mental illnesses of a variety of sorts. (I think spree killings and some military massacres are caused by a certain sort of rarely occuring -and interesting- collective and temporary insanity.) And maybe nationalism and ethnicity and religion give a shape to how the violence is committed, not whether it is committed, e.g. those raised in such and such household will bomb when caused to spree kill, while those raised in a different house will get a sniper rifle, while those raised in another household will do a suicide attack, etc.

      Personally, I think organized acts of terrorism by groups like AQ have political causes (duh) and those political causes have some roots in religious causes. (And Christianity has been the worst at causing violence the world over, or at least tied for worst.)

      However, these spontaneous attacks must be little bits of madness. It makes some sense that AQ thinks they can achieve a goal by attacking. There’s a reason to it. There is just no reason to thinking these spontaneous attacks like the Tsarnaev’s will do anything. They aren’t done to bring about some goal. They aren’t rational acts. In that way, they are analogous to, say, the Columbine murders. But instead of being tied up with goth culture and feeling isolated and then being violent (even though being goth doesn’t cause violence, at all), the Tsarnaev’s were tied up with Muslim, Chechen culture while isolated and then wound up violent (even though Islam doesn’t cause these kinds of spree killings).

      I see no reason not to accept this interpretation over Sullivan’s.

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      • Look, lay aside ‘terrorism’ (the word is highly loaded) and let’s divide the world into a few broad categories:

        1) Those who cannot, ever, bring themselves to deliberately kill.
        2) Those who cannot kill except in immediate self-defense (ie: the full adreneline, fight-or-flight setup, not a more distance or abstract type of self-defense)
        3) Those who can kill if sufficiently motivated.
        4) Those who can kill pretty much at will.

        The types of interest are (3) and (4). (3) Makes up, basically, the pool of potential soldiers, many types of police officer, etc. Motivation might be many things, and they won’t enjoy the process, but they’re quite capable — generally with sufficient training (or heavy motivation) — of killing. Also, I suspect, most terrorists. (I mean let’s face it, if they had an army to join they’d be in it. By and large).

        (4) Are, of course, crazy people.

        These guys feel like (4) — basically Columbine if the kids there had been aimed in a different direction. Maybe that’s wrong and they’re really just radicalized people who are of the type willing to kill for their goals and were given sufficient motivation to do so.

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        • I’m willing to accept the possibility that Tamerlan was at the very least a mix of (3) and (4), but so far nothing about Dzokhar bespeaks someone who was the least bit crazy. However, there is also little about Dzokhar (as opposed to Tamerlan) that bespeaks someone who was terribly fundamentalist or religious at all.

          Family ties, though, can be incredibly powerful. I’d imagine that the family ties of two brothers whose parents have moved to the other side of the globe and who seem to have largely lost contact with their other relatives in this country are more powerful still. And even more powerful than that would be a situation where one of those two brothers was significantly younger than the other and in some manner idolized that older brother.

          It thus seems strongly questionable to me that religion was a particularly powerful motivating factor for Dzokhar. On the other hand, it seems undeniably true that his brother had rapidly descended into religious extremism, and the evidence is surely mounting that religious extremism played a significant role, and likely the primary role, in his motivations. If he was a little bit crazy, too (and I’ll be very interested to see the extent to which his brain exhibits symptoms of CTE), then religious extremism would provide an extraordinarily powerful spark for turning that crazy into something lethal.

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          • You should look into the pattern of dual spree killers. There’s generally a charming, manipulative, sociopathic leader and a devoted follower.

            The follower has to be of type 3 (willing to deliberately kill under the right motivation), but the leader is always type 4 — anywhere from deeply excited at killing to totally uncaring of causing death.

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          • Yeah, I’d also say that the descent into religious fundamentalism may be caused by the same madness that causes the spree killing without the fundamentalism being a cause of the killing.

            That seems very plausible and it needs to be ruled out before you say the fundamentalism caused the spree killing.

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            • So you’re saying that Type A folks are more likely to go on mass spree killings? I don’t think I’ve seen that, though if you want to draw a link between Type A hostility and mass spree killings, I’d love to see the research.

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      • I strongly suspect that spree killing, in the form of berserkers and other such that try to take everyone else out with them, is an obscure but innate bit of genetic heritage that gets triggered by a bunch of factors, like the rejection of flight as an option, but most importantly when all around us are perceived as enemies or threats. Dying while eliminating as many of your tribe and family’s enemies as possible would be an effective piece of evolutionary programming. Caught outside the village and surrounded by hyenas or an enemy raiding party, with no hope of survival or escape? Kill as many as you can as violently and horribly as possible. Find yourself in the enemy tribe’s camp or amidst the dog pack that keeps attacking your tribes children? Go insane, uncork, and decimate it.

        We see this in other species, where an animal has a sudden, uncontrollable, overwhelming urge to lash out and kill everything around it. Sometimes we breed dogs for the trait, and the cute tail wagging terrier who normally lays on a fluffy pillow breaks the leash, almost screaming “ALL THE BABY BUNNIES MUST DIE!!!!”

        We might have our own version of that, left over from when it was evolutionarily beneficial, and given our big complicated brains it might manifest in a variety of ways, from methodical basement plotting to just going nuts at the Quicky-Mart.

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        • Yeah the mechanism behind spree killing is unknown, IMO, but you could be right.

          IMO, otherwise apparently ordinary people can be caused to be spree killers, too. Something happens to people that makes them go spree killing, and it isn’t always (or even that often) some sort of chronic psychosis like schizophrenia.

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  8. Again, I just don’t see a connection between spree killing and fundamentalist Islam anymore than spree killing and being goth.

    There may be a connection between fundamentalist Islam and organized terrorist/rebel groups and the specific tactic of suicide bombing. That is a separate and interesting question.

    But there is every reason to think the Tsarnaev’s weren’t part of such a group. Their actions were insane, not calculated acts to induce terror to bring about a political goal. It was a spree killing that happened to be by Muslims. NB: we have seen lots and lots of non-Muslims engage in spree killings for a variety of motivations. Some of those motivations were sort of political, e.g. the unibomber. Others were sort of Islamist, e.g Nadal Hassan. Some were just crazy, e.g. Newtown.

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    • It is very difficult to tell whether something like that is the cause or the excuse.

      People are quite good at self-delusion at the best of times, and even the killers often like to claim they were justified or not at fault for it.

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    • Tsarnaev the Younger is saying that militant Islam is the reason for his actions, and that he was striking to avenge attacks on Muslims. He also got the bomb making information directly from an Al Qaeda website.

      Since 9/11 over 20,000 terrorist attacks have been carried out by Muslims, a rate of four or five a day, and a rate that hasn’t much diminished. Not all are aimed at expanding Islam, since many are market and mosque bombings between Sunnis and Shiites, but then if those aren’t religiously motivated at some level, what is?

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  9. I don’t/won’t/can’t-be-bothered to read Sullivan, so this may not apply to him, but what I’ve observed in the past week is shitloads of confirmation bias.

    Looking for Middle Eastern men! = Terrorism!
    al Qaeda linked! = Terrorism!

    What, no evidence of al Qaeda link? Uh….
    What, Caucasian men? Uh….
    Chechnyan Muslims! = Terrorism!

    Sigh.

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  10. Maybe worth pointing out that in the main post in question as the follow-ups as far as I can see, Sullivan actually is not making the case that this was terrorism, at least not by using the word – he doesn’t. He seems more concerned with establishing the link between Islamic extremism and violence as being somehow tighter than for other religious extremism, or simply other extremism (which seems thinly-evidenced to me at best).

    For my part, I agree with Will T. from another thread that the method here – the selection of an extremely high-profile public, mass-, and the use of explosive devices, whose destructive effect is more random and which clearly call greater attention to themselves than gunshots (not that gunshots in crowded places don’t call attention to themselves, but the nature of that attention is different), rather than just guns, suggests an intent to use violence to make some kind of statement, which to me is what is necessary for an act of violence to be terrorism. Determining the exact motive is necessary to confirm that this was terrorism, but I think it isn’t insidious or confirmation bias to think that this method of violence suggests an intent to send a message of some kind, and to think that it would be terrorism if it did, nor to say that one thinks that. I think that the range of aims that could have motivated this exact act that would take it out of the category of terrorism is much, much narrower than the range of motivations that would confirm it was terrorism. And I thought that before I knew anything about the bombers.

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  11. Well, I’ll toss in this interesting story.

    The elder brother’s best friend was found murdered in his apartment in 2011, along with two Jewish men. All had had their throats slit and a bag of marijuana was dumped on the bodies. Police think the victims knew their killer but they never came up with a suspect. The elder brother, strangely, never attended his best friend’s memorial service or his funeral.

    I hope the police kept some DNA evidence.

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    • Not evidence of Type A Hostility — the argument you were seemingly advancing earlier.
      Possible evidence of psychopathy, which is completely different.

      I would not be surprised if psychopathy was an integral part of spree killings. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it really wasn’t.

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  12. This is why I ditched the Dish–Sullivan is a huge fan of certitude over veracity, and he’s incapable of analyzing a position once he’s taken it. His rabid Obama fanboyism, the whole “Trig is secretly Bristol’s child hidden for publicity reasons” bit, his demagoguery regarding Islam–the man likes arguing more than he likes reason, and I don’t need that many posts a day anyway.

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