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Austin Cline

Comment of the Week: Religion & Mob Violence

By August 14, 2012

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There's no end of examples of mob violence in history, including mob violence that's driven by religion, but there are even more examples of angry people who haven't become violent mobs. So, what causes angry groups of people to cross the line over to becoming a violent mob?

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Given how much anger and violent rhetoric there is on the extremist right in America -- and given how much larger that extremist right has become in recent years -- this is something people in America should care about. America has experienced extremist violence in the past and will surely experience it again. It's just a matter of when and over what issues.

So we need to discuss what might cause the xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny of the extremist right to move from violent rhetoric into violent behavior -- and by that I mean mass, organized violence rather than isolated incidents. We'll always have the latter, just like we'll always have crime, but the former would be a very serious and dangerous development.

P. Smith writes:

When large groups of people gather together for events, whether sports, music, parades and the like, most people act civilized and go home peacefully. When do the mobs become violent, what makes them lash out?

It seems to require two things:

(1) A sense of anonymity, that they can hide in the crowd and can't or won't be held accountable for their actions.

(2) A leadership spewing rhetoric that will incite the violence.

[original post]

I'd just like to add that anonymity isn't the only reason why a person might believe that they won't be held accountable. Sometimes people are told, implicitly or explicitly, that they are exempt from the normal rules (because they are special) or that their violence is exempt from the normal rules (because of an emergency situation). This will allow them to act violently even without anonymity.

Few anti-abortionist christians act out violently (e.g. James Kopp, Eric Rudolph, Scott Roeder) because they know that most people object to bombings of public places. There have been a large number of bombs and bomb threats against abortion clinics, but most of them were anonymous, by cowards unwilling to show themselves. The three terrorists mentioned above all attempted to evade capture, they were unwilling to stand up for what they believed in.

Compare that to terrorism and violence towards blacks in the south, where the majority of the public condoned or participated in the bombings and arson against individual homes and churches. There was no accountability and anonymity came from willing silence, not just masks, so the Ku Klux Klowns had free reign to terrorize the public.

I think the tide is turning in the US, with people having seen that the "others" (atheists, gays, etc.) are not dangerous, and seeing the similarity of christian extremism to muslim extremism. There still are many who agree with it, but they are no longer in the majority. Some traditional conservatives are distancing themselves from it, going so far as to support political opponents only because "their own side" is worse (e.g. the blogger of littlegreenfootballs.com who is still far right, but no longer lunatic fringe).

It's noteworthy that few of the right-wing extremists have any interest in being martyrs for their cause. They want to put an end to things that they hate (abortion, gay rights, women's rights), but they don't even want to be particularly inconvenienced in the process, much less have to sacrifice for it. If they were, you'd see more right-wing terrorism against gays, atheists, and abortion providers -- and you'd see the extremists using it for propaganda purposes. There are few if any John Browns in right-wing Christianity today.

This is connected, I believe, to a much larger and important phenomenon: right-wing Christianity in America today tends to be white, comfortable, self-righteous, and self-satisfied. There is much more interest in indulgence than sacrifice, which is why providing very public financial support for a large fast-food corporation was a big deal for them but you don't see them doing anything remotely comparable to feed the large numbers of hungry children in America. Being seen by the community and on television is self-indulgent and away to be self-righteous; it doesn't require any sacrifice or self-reflection.

And that may be the biggest reason why mass violence from right-wing Christianity seems to remain a very, very distant threat. Conservative Christians are too comfortable and have too much to lose. They can no longer conceive of sacrificing for their ideals and values -- they'll sacrifice the lives and safety of others for the sake of cheap oil, but not their own lives and comfort for the sake of biblical values they preach about in public. For them, buying chicken from a bigoted corporation counts as their "big activist event."

They're pathetic and deserve all the mockery and derision that can be thrown at them.

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