"I know this sounds racist, but ?"
So goes the subject line on last week's email from Bill, a reader. It seems Bill has an idea. Given that "all of the radical terrorists have been Muslims," he wants the government to mount a program to surveil every follower of Islam who immigrates to these shores. We are, claims reader Bill, "faced with a population who swears an oath to God to kill Americans - not Canadians, not Mexicans, but Americans." It is, he says, "time we protect ourselves."
For our purposes today, we will ignore the fact that Islam is not a race, so animus toward Muslims is not, strictly speaking, "racist." Bill's point is clear enough. And his anger is understandable, coming as it does after the Boston Marathon bombing and the savage butchering of a British soldier by Islamic extremists. Predictably, the U.K. has suffered a rash of right-wing demonstrations and attacks on mosques ever since Lee Rigby's death.
But I find myself thinking about white boys.
Consider: This nation's recent history is stained by repeated acts of school violence. From Newtown, Conn., to West Paducah, Ky., to Santee, Calif., to Eugene, Ore., to Conyers, Ga., to Pearl, Miss., to Jonesboro, Ark., to DeKalb, Ill., to Littleton, Colo., we have seen scores of people killed and injured. The violence has been random, large scale and indiscriminate, identical to terrorism except that it has no political motive. And the profile of the assailants is virtually always the same: white boys and young men from suburban, small-town or rural communities.
If, then, the reasoning is that we are entitled to demand extra scrutiny of people who meet a profile associated with random violence, can we expect arguments for the mass surveillance of young white boys any time soon? Of course not.
White boys are a known - and a norm. Indeed, many of those in media and elsewhere who decide how perceptions will be framed were once young white boys themselves. So it's easy for them to recognize the unfairness and absurdity of tarring America's 16.8 million white males, ages 15 to 24, with the actions of a few.
But Muslims are different, right? For most of us, they are not a known or a norm, but an Other. And so, some of us are comfortable using the actions of a few of them to tar all 1.6 billion.
I don't blame reader Bill for his frustration or his anger, nor for wanting to interdict Muslim extremism. I'll grant that in too many nations in the Islamic world, extremism is too little challenged and is, indeed, encouraged. But the key word in all of that is not Muslim. It is, "extremism," i.e., the willingness to do anything in furtherance of a goal.
The moment we fail to understand that, the moment we become sanguine about this idea of holding the many responsible for the crimes of the few, is the moment we betray what we purport to hold dear.