Austin serial bomber Mark Conditt terrorised the city of Austin, Texas, over approximately 19 days in March 2018. He targeted the African American community, and posted bombs to various organisations and individuals. Eventually cornered by the police, Conditt took his own life – he blew himself up, rather than surrender. The Austin police chief, after refusing to use the ‘T’ word to describe Conditt, eventually relented and applied the appropriate description to the perpetrator – a domestic terrorist.
Conditt was described as a ‘troubled’ youth with mental health problems, and this may very well have been the case. These kinds of descriptions are usually deployed as excuses, by the corporate media, in order to minimise the culpability of a perpetrator we would otherwise characterise as a terrorist. There is some discussion of why, in such cases, we are hesitant in using the label ‘terrorist’, especially in the case of a perpetrator who is white and Christian, like Mark Conditt.
Daniel Camacho, writing in The Guardian newspaper, correctly identifies the role of white privilege in this debate regarding the motivations of terrorist suspects. In the United States, white Christian racial and religious privilege provide a buttress for those who would kill and maim, particularly when their targets are from ethnic and religious minorities. As Camacho states in his article:
If a Muslim man planted bombs in predominately white neighborhoods before blowing himself up, you could bet that the White House and various media outlets would label him a terrorist and draw some connection between his religion and his violent acts. But the case of the Austin bomber reveals an enduring double standard: white Christian terrorists continue to get a free pass.
Personal and mental health problems are provided greater coverage in the case of those domestic terrorists who are white and come from a Christian background. While it is the case that the motivations for violent terrorist acts are always complicated and multifaceted, a perpetrator of non-white background is never granted any exculpatory reasons or opinions. It took sustained community outrage before the Austin police chief admitted he was ”comfortable’ with stating that Conditt was a domestic terrorist.
When a perpetrator from an Islamic background is examined, there is no shortage of coverage about the radicalisation of religion, and in particular the Islamic faith’s purported receptiveness towards a radicalised message. Islam, so we are told by the experts, possesses a unique totalitarian political tendency conducive in producing radicalised adherents. Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the logo ‘war on terror’ has become a useful label to denote the US government’s response to radicalised Islamic groups. Indeed, since 2001 advocates for the American government have stated that the United States is at war with radical Islam.
This mindset of ‘we are at war with radical Islam’ contains a vital hypocrisy at its heart. The proponents of this view deliberately ignore the radicalisation of religion that occurs with the other monotheistic faith groups. The action of Mark Conditt and similar ultra-rightist perpetrators are dismissed as aberrations; they are sidelined as marginal figures that have misinterpreted Christian scripture. Misinterpretation may indeed be the case, but Conditt was not a marginal or atypical figure. Holy hate is as much part of the Christian tradition as it is of the Islamic.
Conditt was a member of RIOT – Righteous Invasion of Truth – a Christian survivalist group which homeschooled its members, and taught its followers gun skills along with theology. Raised on a diet of millenarian prophecy, Conditt was indoctrinated into a radicalised perspective, lashing out against marriage equality, and expressing opposition to other religious and ethnic minority groups. Conditt was not alone in his Christian supremacism. The United States has a long history of religiously-motivated terrorism, and not just the obvious example of men-in-sheets burning crosses.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) has documented the ultra-right’s radicalisation of religion. In a report called ‘Holy Hate’, the authors explain how the far-right in America have immersed themselves in the doctrines of Christian theology and end-times prophecies. The SPLC writers state that:
White supremacists, sovereign citizens, militia extremists and violent anti-abortion adherents use religious concepts and scripture to justify threats, criminal activity and violence. This discussion of religious extremism should not be confused with someone being extremely religious. It should also not be misconstrued as an assault on Christianity. Rather, it represents an exploration of the links between violent right-wing extremism and its exploitation of Christianity and other religions to gain a better understanding of how American extremists recruit, radicalize and mobilize their adherents toward violence and terrorism.
Religious conceptions stemming from the Christian faith play a vital role in the recruitment and radicalisation of ultra-rightist foot-soldiers in the United States. Christian apocalypse scenarios, the Armageddon end-times, and the ostensible inevitability of the Second Coming of Christ, are crucial concepts in the indoctrination and mobilisation of right-wing extremists. Scriptural interpretation is used to defy the law, and in many cases, change the laws of the United States to conform to Christian precepts. Hate in God’s name is not an exclusively Muslim enterprise.
Ultra-right militias and sovereign citizens groups place themselves in the Christian camp, and self-identify as Christian patriots fighting for dominion over a supposedly wayward, secular society and constitution. Patriot militia groups express their admiration for the Founding Fathers of American independence, but their veneration adopts semi-religious overtones. In fact, the concept of ‘Judeo-Christian’ values is invoked – by the ultra-right. The founding fathers were alleged to have been motivated by such beliefs and principles when drafting the constitution of the fledgling republic – in fact, there is no such thing as ‘Judeo-Christian’ beliefs.
Please do not misconstrue the above critique; we are not suggesting that Christianity is better or worse than other religions. Should we be ‘soft’ on Islamic militia groups? No, we should not. Is the above motivated by a murderous hatred of Christian persons? No, it is not. What is being suggested is that we need to have a serious discussion about the radicalisation of religion, in all its forms. Ultra-rightist groups have a history of committing terrorist acts – and they have been flying under the radar for a long time.
It is time to expose not only the crimes of domestic terrorism, but also the ideology that underlies the motivations of the ultra-right. When black American families, and their churches, are targeted by a violent ultra-rightist like Mark Conditt, it is a poor service to the victims when we find excuses for the actions of the terrorist perpetrator.