Despite my tutoring, even managing to inspire my father to a full Democratic vote in the 2014 general election, he continues to watch Fox News one hour every weekday. It is Special Report with Bret Baier, and I know why he watches it: Charles Krauthammer. My father is a sucker for soft spoken, apparently thoughtful people. He is, interesting, also fond of Noam Chomsky. My father has never been that good with consistency of thought. Regardless, last night he asked me about Americans who run off to join ISIS. He wanted to know if they were crazy. I try to respond to such questions with sensitivity towards him.
You see, my problem is with the question itself. So I want to respond with something like, “Why do people engage in autocannibalism?” Because I’m pretty such that more Americans are explicitly eating parts of their bodies than are flying off to the Middle East to join ISIS. Back in February, US intelligence officials estimated that a whopping 150 people may have gone to Syria or attempted to do so. That’s less than 0.00005% of the population. There are about 16,000 homicides in the United States each year. Over half of those were committed with guns. Are these people crazy? Some percentage of them certainly are. If just 1% of them are crazy, then that’s more than all the Americans who have tried to fight for ISIS.
The problem is not just Fox News, of course. Every time I see some mainstream news, I’m horrified. Did you notice that we got through Independence Day without a terror attack? This should be big news after last week, when television news was filled with warnings about a threat focused on the holiday. Of course, those reports always came with a disclaimer at the end, “Government officials say they have no actual evidence of any plots.” In other words: there was no reason to be reporting about these concerns. I’m sure that government officials are worried every day that there will be a terrorist attack.
But there is no doubt that Fox News is the king of this kind of fear mongering. Eric Boehlert of Media Matters wrote an article for Salon over the weekend, Fox News Can’t Bear the Truth: Right-Wing Terror Groups Are America’s Gravest Threat. He noted something that relates to this directly, “Media Matters has also been shining a spotlight on the fact that not only does Fox News downplay homegrown acts of right-wing, anti-government and white supremacist violence, treating them as rogue, isolated events (if covering the events at all), they also hype beyond proportion and common sense attacks by Muslims in America.”
There are roughly three million Muslims in the United States. So if we assume that only Muslims are going over to Syria to fight for the Islamic State, that represents 0.005% of all Muslims. If anything ought to be dismissed as isolated events, it should be young Muslim men heading off to the Middle East to fight for… Actually, I don’t know what they go over to fight. It is a war between different Muslim groups, so it isn’t even a “Muslim versus the world” thing.
I don’t especially care that Dylann Roof is a bigot. Even without a well organized white supremacy subculture, angry young men like him will find a casus belli. But what’s important is that no one really questions that running off to join the global jihad is something that appeals to certain young Muslim men. It is not in any important way different from young socialists and fascists in the 1930s, running off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The problem with Fox News — and to a lesser extent the whole of mainstream news — is that it doesn’t want to admit Dylann Roof is also part of a long standing narrative in the United States. Roof didn’t have a race war he could run away and join. So he tried to start his own here at home.
So are men who run off to fight wars crazy? From my perspective, they look like it. But in a country like the United States that is so warlike and that so fetishizes the military, the impulse itself can’t be considered crazy. It must be considered rational, given the assumptions of the young man. Those assumptions can noble or vile. But the act itself is not outside what we think of as acceptable behavior, as long as we agree with the cause. As a nation, we do not agree with the jihad cause. But we are more ambivalent about the white supremacy cause. And that’s what should really concern us.