The Mental Gymnastics of Excusing White Men’s Violence
On Thanksgiving night, a religiously motivated political extremist on a suicide mission took to the streets of downtown Austin, wearing military-style riot gear and armed with illegally obtained automatic weapons and a van full of explosives, just as revelers from the surrounding entertainment districts were pouring into the street after bar-closing time.
Larry McQuilliams, 49, trekked across the city from the federal courthouse to the Mexican Consulate to police headquarters, firing hundreds of rounds and attempting—unsuccessfully—to set off improvised explosive devices along the way. No one was injured except McQuilliams, who was killed by police.
Following McQuilliams’ rampage, the Austin American-Statesman went looking for more about this homegrown terrorist. According to the Statesman headline, he was a Midwesterner who’d sought a “fresh start in Austin.” The Statesman went on to interview McQuilliams’ neighbor, Katie Matlack, who described him as a “very kind person” who was “frustrated.” (Later, Matlack wrote a first-person piece for the Observer describing McQuilliams’ relationship with his South Austin neighbors).
I thought of the coverage following the police shootings of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
A New York Times piece described Brown, who was stopped for jaywalking before being shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson, as “no angel.” After officer Tim Loehmann shot and killed Rice at the park gazebo where Rice was playing with a replica gun, the Cleveland Plain Dealer hurried to run a story about Rice’s parents’ criminal records, apparently desperate to associate the boy with criminality any way it could.
Surely these people must have done something to invite their deaths at the hands of law enforcement?
Meanwhile, a white Christian man plans and executes a terrorist attack in Texas’ capital and he’s just a nice guy who lost his way, a Renaissance Faire enthusiast in a tricorn hat who enjoyed tubing and trying to blow up government buildings.
This response accomplishes two things: It obfuscates the role of racism and white supremacy in the construction of the “victim” in our discourse, and it excuses white-perpetrated violence as a fluke, rather than as the not-illogical result of pro-gun, anti-government and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Austin police chief Art Acevedo was unequivocal in calling McQuilliams a terrorist, and local and national news outlets did pick up on that language in the brief spate of coverage following McQuilliams’ spree, though rare was the coverage that exposed and examined the connections between McQuilliams’ beliefs and mainstream conservative ideology about border militarization, the unassailable right to bear arms and an imagined war on Christian religious freedoms.
We heard no calls for a national conversation about religious extremism in the Christian community, no hand-wringing cable news pundits imploring American whites to get their violent males in line, no somber public statements from Christian leaders hurrying to distance themselves from McQuilliams and his ilk.
And while Acevedo connected McQuilliams’ motivations with right-wing rhetoric, he also called McQuilliams a “lone wolf.” Indeed, McQuilliams appears to have acted alone, but we should not pretend that his ideology or his actions came wholly formed out of some unfathomable ether.
Though his violent downtown tour blessedly resulted in no civilian deaths, McQuilliams follows in the terroristic footsteps of Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and Joseph Andrew Stack, who flew his single-engine plane into an Austin IRS building in 2010.
The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps a tally of dozens of such plots and attacks on government buildings, abortion providers, gay bars, civil rights groups and minority neighborhoods. And yet the media ignores the pattern time and time again, choosing instead to focus on what a 12-year-old boy might have done to provoke a police officer to shoot him on sight or whether an 18-year-old Missouri man deserved to be murdered for jaywalking.
In the aftermath of McQuilliams’ rampage, one Austinite told a local news team that he’d seen the white man in riot gear and wasn’t immediately sure if he should report the gunshots. Maybe, he’d thought, McQuilliams was one of the good guys.
I don’t wonder where he got that idea.