Long before bloggers were given front-row seats at Milan Fashion Week, or the president took questions from a blogger at the White House, two writers from the online Underground News Network scored press passes to cover the trial of the D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad.
The Web site’s editors followed some teachings of Islam and were fervent supporters of Muhammad, whose murderous rampage they believed was riddled with divine meaning. They traveled there to monitor the mainstream media covering the 2003 trial—me included—who didn’t realize that the shootings were actually “like a message from a high priest” intended to “take black people to a higher consciousness.”
After I published my interview with this kooky pair, I got an e-mail from a friend who is a journalist of Arabic descent who happens to be Muslim. She joked that it’s bad enough they presented themselves as journalists. They would have to be Muslim, too!
If you are a member of a persecuted group, you know the impulse. That tinge of embarrassment, that damn, why-can’t-we-get-it-together feeling when one of your contemporaries has gone off the rails. Jews know it. Black people have mastered it. And more recently, in the wake of the Ft. Hood tragedy, a whole lot of mainstream pundits are arguing, so should Muslims.
I can’t disagree more. One of the great things about being American is this clichéd notion of rugged individuality. We are not an old society like Europe or India, where your class and identity were established before your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was born. This idea of personal responsibility and the self-made individual organizes the way we think about ourselves as Americans.
So this idea that blacks/gays/Latinos/insert religious persuasion must take responsibility for whatever evil other blacks/gays/Latinos/insert religious persuasion do is frankly un-American.
With far more nuance than exhibited by our nation’s most prominent pundits, in his Ft. Hood speech last night, President Obama drew a sharp line between religion and individual crazy: “It may be hard to comprehend the twisted logic that led to this tragedy. But this much we do know—no faith justifies these murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favor. And for what he has done, we know that the killer will be met with justice—in this world, and the next.”
I am all for straight-talk on religion and everything else. But sometimes you just have to call these arguments about the need for the Muslim community to take responsibility what they are: illogical and wrong.
It is particularly patronizing when these kinds of admonishments come from someone outside said persecuted group. I am not going around wagging my finger at my white neighbors, demanding they convene a White People Summit to dialogue about how they can avoid producing another Timothy McVeigh/Unabomber/Charles Manson—or even a George W. Bush. That would be an unfair attack on all decent white people.
And I’m not about to start feeling embarrassed about what the recently executed John Allen Muhammad—or the Underground News Network—decides to do. Neither should Muslims around the world feel guilty or responsible for the deranged behavior at Ft. Hood.
It’s real simple. Want to know why crazy people do what they do? Ask them.
Natalie Hopkinson is associate editor of The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.