Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.
Before the Boston Marathon bombing suspects were identified as Chechen immigrants Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, left-wing columnist David Sirota wrote in Salon.com that he hoped the bomber was a "white domestic terrorist," since white Americans -- unlike minorities -- aren't subject to collective blame and persecution for the acts of a few. Now that it appears virtually certain that this terror attack was the work of foreign-born Muslims, as Sirota feared, will ethnic and religious profiling target innocent people and endanger liberty and justice?
We must be vigilant against such overreactions. Yet some degree of profiling -- that is, judgment based on known risk factors -- is inevitable, and it does not exempt "privileged" groups, including white men.
It is not Islamophobic, for instance, to point out the increasingly obvious fact that radical Islam played a major role in the attack -- and not just because the suspects happen to be Muslim. In 2007, when Bosnian-born Muslim Sulejman Talovic carried out a deadly shooting spree in a Salt Lake City shopping mall, attempts by a few right-wing websites to label this an act of jihadist terrorism fell flat because there was no evidence of such a motive. In this instance, many reports, from relatives, friends and others, indicate that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had grown obsessed with religious zealotry. Whatever psychological and social problems may have affected the brothers, their disaffection was channeled into a faith-based ideology that glorifies violence.
Some have suggested that Islam was no more relevant to the brothers' acts than Oklahoma City-bomber Timothy McVeigh's Christianity was to his crime. But this is a false analogy. McVeigh showed little interest in religion. What's more, while far-right Christian groups exist, there is simply no Christian equivalent to radical Islamism with its global terror network and its ranks of extremist preachers.
No, radical Islamism is not equivalent to all Islam, and the acts of Muslim extremists should not lead to wholesale accusations against Muslims. It is now known that the elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, clashed angrily with other believers at a local Islamic center, calling them infidels for what he saw as their moderate views. But extremist attitudes among American Muslims are more than an occasional isolated problem, as American Muslims themselves agree. In a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, 1 in 5 said there was "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of support for extremism among Muslims in the United States, and 60 percent were concerned about the growth of Islamic radicalism in America.
There is no question that at times, fears of terrorism have led to unfair treatment of Muslim Americans. But it is not true that what Sirota terms "white male privilege" automatically exempts white men from group blame -- at least, blame directed at specific groups of white men. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, right-wing "patriot" groups and talk show hosts were widely blamed for promoting extremism; the "angry white male" became a media stereotype.
More recently, when Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot by a young white man, Jared Lee Loughner, attempts were initially made to link the shooter to the tea party movement -- wrongly, as it turned out. Can anyone doubt that if several terror attacks had been linked to people with tea party ties, there would have been widespread calls for more surveillance of such groups?
Americans are understandably wary of profiling, which in the past has led to such tragedies as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. In our time, thankfully, no mainstream politician would even entertain comparable measures. But in some cases, religion and national origin -- just like political ideology -- are factors in investigating extremism. To deny it would violate common sense.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.