The 2016 Republican presidential candidates claim to oppose terrorism. They say they’re motivated not by pro-Christian or anti-Muslim bias, but by a consistent ethic of calling out and confronting religious violence. But their reactions to two recent incidents belie that claim. The first incident was the July 16 attack on military recruiters in Chattanooga, Tennessee, allegedly by a Muslim. The second is the Nov. 27 attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, allegedly by a Christian. In each case, little was known at the time of the shooting. Yet the candidates treated the two cases quite differently. In fact, after the Colorado Springs attack, several candidates completely reversed the positions they had espoused after Chattanooga. Radical Christianity, unlike radical Islam, was given a pass.
The day after the Chattanooga attack we knew a few things about the alleged gunman, Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez. According to the New York Times, he was a naturalized U.S. citizen. He had been “born in Kuwait to Muslim Jordanian parents of Palestinian descent.” He had written online that Muslims should “submit to Allah.” He had never been on any list of terrorism suspects. And he was due to appear in court on a three-month-old drunk-driving charge. The Times reported that Abdulazeez had “made several trips to Jordan,” but the paper also cautioned that investigators hadn’t yet determined whether he was connected to or motivated by a terrorist organization.
Despite the limits of this information, the absence of official statements, and the availability of a non-religious explanation for the attack, Sen. Ted Cruz delivered his verdict. Abdulazeez “was there to carry out jihad, an act of radical Islamic terrorism,” Cruz declared in a statement on the day after the attack. Cruz ridiculed the “delusion” that “a ‘lone gunman’—as President Obama described the shooter—is somehow isolated from the larger threat of radical Islamic terrorism. In the modern world, no one acts in isolation.”
The Nov. 27 incident in Colorado Springs presented Cruz with similar circumstances. Again, in lieu of an official statement of motive, there were only suggestive media reports. By 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 28, NBC News had reported that under interrogation the alleged gunman, Robert Lewis Dear, had used the phrase “no more baby parts.” By 6 p.m., the Times had reported more. Dear had given his neighbor anti-Obama pamphlets. He had painted or posted crosses on at least two of his homes. In 2005, a message board user who appeared to be Dear had written: “AIDS, hurricanes, we are in the end times. Accept the LORD JESUS while you can.” Dear’s ex-wife told the paper that although he wasn’t a regular churchgoer, “He believed wholeheartedly in the Bible. That’s what he always said; he read it cover to cover to cover.”
By the evening of Nov. 28, these reports had been widely disseminated. Nevertheless, the following afternoon, Cruz cautioned that people shouldn’t “jump to conclusions.” “There has been some vicious rhetoric on the left blaming those who are pro-life,” Cruz protested. “We don’t fully know the motivations of this deranged individual. … The media promptly wants to blame him on the pro-life movement, when at this point there’s very little evidence to indicate that.”
A reporter asked Cruz about Dear’s alleged “baby parts” comment. Cruz shot back, “It’s also reported that he was registered as an independent and as a woman. And a transgendered leftist activist, if that’s what he is, I don’t think it’s fair to blame on the rhetoric on the left.” Another reporter asked Cruz whether the incident was “domestic terrorism.” Cruz demurred: “I would call it a murder. And we’ll see what the facts are. It was a multiple murder [by] what appears to be a deranged individual.”
In every respect, Cruz’s response to Colorado Springs was a complete reversal of his response to Chattanooga. In the Tennessee case, Cruz ridiculed lone-gunman explanations—“no one acts in isolation”—and demanded that the incident be understood in the context of “previous episodes” and the “larger threat” of radical Islamic violence. Cruz blamed not just the shooter but the messages that might have provoked him. And Cruz placed ultimate responsibility on an underlying ideology: “radical Islam.”
In the Colorado case, Cruz did the opposite. He said there was too little evidence of motive. He blamed “a deranged individual.” He refused to call the incident terrorism. He rejected any attempt to blame the attack on incitement or on radical Christian ideology. Instead, based on speculation in the right-wing blogosphere, Cruz reached for a preposterous, bogus counter-narrative about a transgender person attacking an abortion clinic.
A week before the Colorado attack, Cruz had lavishly praised a pro-life activist who once wrote that we are “commanded by God” to execute abortionists. If any Muslim had praised an imam who issued such edicts, Cruz would have denounced him. Then, on Nov. 30, three days after the attack, Cruz and conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt insisted that no pro-lifer had ever advocated violence. Cruz also excoriated the media for doing to Christians and Republicans what Cruz had done four months earlier to Muslims: “Every time you have some sort of violent crime or mass killing, you can almost see the media salivating, hoping, hoping desperately that the murderer happens to be a Republican so they can use it to try to paint their political enemies.”
Cruz isn’t the only candidate who has changed his tune. On July 17, the day after the Chattanooga shooting, Sen. Marco Rubio focused on radical Islamic messages that might have provoked the gunman. “There are people living inside the United States, some whom have never even left this country, who are being radicalized online,” Rubio warned during a campaign stop in Iowa. He asserted that the shooter had been “radicalized to take a gun and kill four Marines.” Rubio argued that the government must not just catch these killers but “find out if they're working for someone else as part of a broader conspiracy.”
But on Nov. 30, three days after the Colorado Springs shooting, Rubio focused on the gunman, not on whatever message might have radicalized him. An interviewer in New Hampshire asked Rubio how he would handle “domestic terrorism, particularly in light of the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado.” Rubio rejected that analysis. He classified the shooting with other crimes committed by “a sick person who takes it upon themselves to do something horrifying like this.” He used his answer to talk not about terrorism but about “how we address mental health.”
Other candidates have also switched positions. On the day of the Chattanooga shooting, Donald Trump said President Obama should stop being “politically correct” and should call out the menace for what it was: “Islamic terrorism.” But two days after the Colorado Springs shooting, when Trump was asked whether “the heated rhetoric” around Planned Parenthood had contributed to the killer’s eruption, Trump replied: “No. I think he’s a sick person. And I think he was probably a person ready to go. We don’t even know the purpose.”
Hours after the Chattanooga incident, Mike Huckabee said that the attack was “not isolated” and that other Americans were being similarly radicalized. He accused Obama of refusing “to identify the real enemy” in order “to protect the image of Islam.” But two days after the Colorado incident, Huckabee declared, “I don’t know of anybody who has suggested violence toward Planned Parenthood personnel.” Ignoring several past cases, Huckabee dismissed the notion that anti-abortion activists would send “some madman into a clinic to kill people.”
In the days since the candidates’ initial responses to the Colorado attack, we’ve learned more about Dear. On Nov. 30, the Charleston Post and Courier quoted a 1993 divorce filing from Dear’s then-wife: “He claims to be a Christian and is extremely evangelistic, but does not follow the Bible in his actions. He says that as long as he believes he will be saved, he can do whatever he pleases. He is obsessed with the world coming to an end.” On Dec. 1, based on further interviews, the Times reported that “a number of people who knew Mr. Dear said he was a staunch abortion opponent.” The article noted:
One person who spoke with him extensively about his religious views said Mr. Dear, who is 57, had praised people who attacked abortion providers, saying they were doing “God’s work.” In 2009, said the person … Mr. Dear described as “heroes” members of the Army of God, a loosely organized group of anti-abortion extremists that has claimed responsibility for a number of killings and bombings.
Will these reports prompt the candidates to treat the shooting in Colorado like the one in Chattanooga? Don’t count on it. Four days after the Colorado attack, the candidates were still making excuses and dismissing the shooter as “one violent nut.” When guilt, motive, and incitement are in question, Christians get the benefit of the doubt. Muslims don’t.