AUSTIN, Texas — Timothy McVeigh was a terrorist.
McVeigh was an American-born, lily-white, homegrown terrorist who killed 168 people, grievously injured three times that number and shattered our collective sense of domestic safety, all because of his personal disillusionment with the federal government.
McVeigh was an American who committed an atrocity on his home soil. He was not a refugee, fleeing brutal persecution a world away. He was not of a disenfranchised minority group, frustrated by lack of opportunity and pervasive, institutional racism. He was a socially stunted middle-class white man who blossomed into a gun nut with a victim complex.
Terrorism isn’t tidy. It can’t be explained away as a product of outside forces. The violence in Paris and Beirut and Damascus and Nairobi and dozens of other dots on the map scares us, and rightfully so. The world is frightening. Despite our hazy longings for the halcyon days of our youths, the world always has been a complex tableau of horrors. Only now, in our intensely interconnected world, the threats seem to come from all sides.
But as horrific as the Islamic State might be as an entity, it is not the sole enemy. Neither is al-Qaida, Boko Haram or al-Shabab. This is not the Cold War. Nothing is binary. There is not a single struggle of good and evil. A thousand evils, large and small, reveal themselves each day, right here, at your doorstep.
Or at least at the doorstep of your favorite movie theater, or the nearest grocery store parking lot, or your children’s school, or the health care clinic that has the audacity to provide affordable medical treatment to those who need it most.
We have not heard a definitive statement about the motives of Robert Dear, who stands accused of opening fire on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs last week. One law enforcement official claims to have heard Dear use the phrase “no more baby parts” in an interview after his surrender to the police. We cannot yet speak to why three people are dead, only that they are, and we are all the worse for it.
What we do know is that this man — this supposedly pious white American man — is accused of spraying bullets at a Planned Parenthood in a Colorado shopping center and killing, respectively, an Iraq War veteran, a mother of two and a police officer, in addition to wounding several others.
What we do know is that the rhetoric surrounding abortion, a legal medical procedure, in this country has reached a point of vitriol and malicious misinformation as to become dangerous. We cannot responsibly introduce allegations that Planned Parenthood is harvesting fetal organs for profit into our political discourse without thinking there could be ramifications; it seems counterintuitive to fear the Islamic State radicalizing our young people through hate-filled propaganda without considering how impassioned, emotionally charged lies about an issue along a fault line of the country might push edge-case fanatics to extremist acts.
What we do know is that 11 people have been killed in attacks on U.S. abortion clinics — legal medical facilities — since 1993.
What we do know, if indeed the heinous attack on Planned Parenthood was motivated by anti-abortion sentiment, is that the accused will receive his day in court. He will be tried by a jury of his peers. He will be presumed innocent in the eyes of the law until he is proven guilty. He will be guaranteed the rights allotted to him by the law — the same law that should protect women seeking a safe, legal abortion from being persecuted and imperiled.
Robert Dear was taken into custody without a scratch on him. He was jailed. He was processed. He was readied for court. The same could be said for McVeigh 20 years ago. Can we be certain these circumstances would hold true if either had darker skin? If either man professed faith to Allah, would they make it to trial? Which country might we have gone to war with if either man had been taken in as a refugee?
The object of terrorism isn’t to create an us vs. them environment. That is a means to an end. The aim of terrorists is to create an environment of fear, to plunge us into a tidal pool of distrust. Terrorists — be they black, white, brown or indigo — want nothing more than to turn neighbor against neighbor, to sever the already fine threads that hold us together.
Every member of the huddled masses we turn away at the nation’s gate out of fear of “them” eats away at that fabric. Every act of violence on those we disagree with unravels it further.
Three times in my life, I have believed the world might be ending. First was the Oklahoma City bombing, a scar on my home that will never fully heal. Second was Sept. 11, when we confronted, as a nation, inconceivable destruction and tragedy. The third was the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, in which the number of victims was far less important than what the loss of life meant. Only one of those instances involved foreign extremists perpetrating an act of terror. We took care of the other two right here in America.
If I have one hope for the future, it’s that we put ourselves out of the terrorism business.