Hate. It’s a word many have used to describe Omar Mateen’s slaughter of fifty people at an Orlando nightclub. A radicalized Muslim who declared his allegiance to ISIS committed an “act of hate,” as President Obama says. Like the overused “tragedy” (I’ll save that polemic for another time), “hate” obscures, rather than clarifies, what’s at stake. It directs our attention to strong emotions and abnormal mental states. It distracts us from the fact that our enemy has formulated a rational, political judgment—namely that humanity is better off if an Islamic form of government, rather than the United States, dominates the world.
Multiculturalism has made us too parochial to see this. Technocracy has made it contrary to the interests of our leaders. The truth is that terrorism has its roots in politics, not in hate.
Radical Islam’s political judgment—that America is the world’s preeminent source of moral and spiritual corruption—was articulated once by Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who was executed in 1966. Two years in the United States convinced Qutb that our society was morally and spiritually bankrupt. His assessment is widespread among Islamic radicals—and among Hindu nationalists in India, and traditionalists in Russia and elsewhere. From this premise, it’s not hard to conclude that America’s global influence is malign. And having reached this conclusion, any responsible person—especially any Muslim seeing himself privileged to have an empowering faith in the One God—should logically fight against America’s global preeminence. Indeed, insofar as such a person cares for those of us living in the United States, he should wish to liberate us from our perverse culture.
The violence he will commit is properly called terrorism. It is motivated by a political judgment, and committed by reactionary non-state actors in an asymmetric warfare with military powers. It is fundamentally different from incidents in which the perpetrator is deranged by some strong emotion—“hate”—as were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. We don’t call the Columbine massacre “terrorism.” Nor do we call the Sandy Hook massacre, with its mentally ill shooter, “terrorism.” In both cases, violence had psychological roots and no political meaning.
Terrorism has political roots. One could say that the Italian anarchists who (most historians assume) bombed Wall Street in 1920, killing thirty and injuring hundreds, “hated” capitalism. But their feelings about capitalism were incidental. Their judgment of capitalism—that it was unjust, and that in the interest of humanity it should be destroyed—was decisive. The same could be said for Alger Hiss. He was a communist spy not because he “hated” America, but because he thought history was on the side of communism. He made a political judgment and acted on it. The same could be said for Timothy McVeigh. He saw the United States government as an enemy of the people. Having formed this political judgment, he acted on it.
The same should be said for Muslim terrorists, including Omar Mateen. So why do our leaders, when speaking of the Orlando shooting, have recourse to “hate”?
Because our leaders cannot imagine a rational anti-Americanism. This is due in part to the narrowing effect of multiculturalism. Paradoxically, instead of broadening our capacity to entertain ways of thinking not our own, multiculturalism has made us parochial. We compliment ourselves endlessly for our tolerance, inclusiveness, and diversity. Since we are so tolerant of others, we assume, there is no reason others shouldn’t tolerate us. Since we are never offended, we must be inoffensive. When Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton say that history is on our side, this is what they mean: There is no valid argument against our ascendancy or our way of thinking. Our multicultural leaders are incapable of seeing the world through the eyes of a conservative Muslim, or of any religiously conservative person.
This wishful blindness to judgments against our political order stands in contrast to the American liberalism that steered the ship of state in the aftermath of World War II. George Kennan well understood the Soviet political judgment against America. He and others were able to imagine our global adversary as ideologically committed and morally serious, even if loyal to false first principles. They understood that Marxist ideology was a lens through which our nation’s inevitable flaws appeared as profound perversions. And they prepared policies to counter communism accordingly.
Today’s multicultural leaders cannot peer through the Islamist lens. When seeking for motives, they only find strong emotion: “hate.” This explanation is all the more tempting in the case of Mateen, whose victims were gay. Terrorism is best understood, for multiculturalists, as arising from a disorder, a phobia—in this case, homophobia. Terrorism is really Sandy Hook, dressed up with political grievance.
But it’s not only multiculturalists who favor mental illness over politics as an explanation for terrorism. The diagnosis is also useful to postmodern technocrats, on the Right as well as the Left. The Right wants to believe that free markets, if finally liberated from political control, will lead to a self-organizing utopia, the culmination of everyone’s mutual self-interests. Conflict, whether violent or not, is never rational according to the technocrat. It reflects a failure to recognize true long-term self-interests.
To sustain this dream of post-political cooperation overseen by a benevolent technocracy, our leaders, on the Left and the Right, work very hard to avoid talking in ways that remind us that public life is, finally, political life. It is a conflict of views about what kind of society leads to human flourishing. Sometimes the conflict reaches an impasse, and breaks out into open violence. When this happens, what’s needed is not the therapeutic bromides of multiculturalism and technocracy. What’s needed is political leadership.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.