A week ago, an 18-year-old Somali immigrant named Abdul Razak Ali Artan rammed his car into a crowd at Ohio State University, then attacked bystanders with a knife before being shot dead by campus police. As investigators dig into his motivates, it is clear that Artan’s understanding of his faith helped to motivate the attack, as he left behind a Facebook post praising the al Qaeda-aligned cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and warning that lone-wolf attacks by Muslims would continue unless the US made peace with ISIS. But it appears that Artan was motivated by more than allegiance to the Islamic State.
Artan believed that his attack was justified because he and his fellow Muslims were persecuted and oppressed by Americans. He wrote, “I am sick and tired of seeing my fellow Muslim Brothers and Sisters being killed and tortured EVERYWHERE.” Bizarrely, the only example he cited was Burma, where persecution of Muslims is real and appalling, but also somewhat more directly linked to the nation’s Buddhist majority than to anyone associated with Ohio State University. However, Artan appeared to feel persecuted at his school as well. He was quoted in the OSU campus newspaper in August saying he was afraid to pray in public because, “If people look at me, a Muslim praying, I don’t know what they’re going to think, what’s going to happen.”
So far, these are the only bits of explanation that have been pieced together to account for Artan’s murderous attack on his fellow students: Persecution of Muslims in a country on the other side of the world, and anticipated persecution from those around him.
Now, let me stop right here and say that I have no doubt whatsoever that being a brown Muslim in America is sometimes awkward and unpleasant. I am sure some people looked down on Artan or were suspicious of him. It is never comfortable to feel oneself to be an outsider, or to be treated as one—and there is no doubt Artan sometimes was, human nature being what it is.
But it is a big mental leap from “Sometimes people are unkind to me” to a spree killing on a college campus. As we seek to understand how Artan made such a leap, it is perhaps not insignificant that he was taking a class on “microaggressions.” One of the stated goals of the class was to allow students to “identify micro-aggressions within their daily lives and within society as a whole,” and Artan was actually working on a class assignment to track down and categorize a dozen examples of microaggressions on social media. In other words, he was being taught to marinate in perceived slights and to inflate the tiniest of injustices to a point where he apparently could not discern any meaningful difference between the genocide of Burmese Muslims and his own discomfort about the possibility that someone somewhere would be offended by his faith.
Now, do I think Artan’s microaggressions class single-handedly turned him into a killer? Of course not. But does that sort of thinking help to explain the bizarre feeling of oppression on the part of a young man whose family escaped their homeland to come to America, where they were welcomed by a Catholic charity and then received subsidized tuition at a state school which cheerfully featured him in the campus newspaper? I think it might.
Even small injustices are unjust, and we should not excuse wrongs because things could be worse. But one lesson from the OSU tragedy is that the “social justice warrior” perspective which cannot see anything but evil and injustice from sea to shining sea is as wrong as the inequities it seeks to correct. We can bear false witness by making up lies, but we can also bear false witness by only ever showing one shade of the truth.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, finally brings me around to what is actually my point today. Because social justice warriors are not the only ones who seem unable to paint in anything but shades of black.
I am increasingly convinced that one of the most pernicious trends in American entertainment is the tendency to see ugliness as synonymous with realism. It’s the same from books to the big screen, but it may be most obvious on television. For shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and the new Westworld, vivid depictions of cruelty and corruption are badges of honor, winning plaudits from critics for showing the ugly potential of human nature. As someone who has a bit of a hobby reading reviews and recaps of popular TV shows, I can testify that there are few easier ways for a writer to score points for realism and commitment to the story than to show something shockingly vile.
Now, far be it from me to deny either that human nature can germinate great evil or that good stories can describe such evil. (One need only read the book of Judges to be assured of both.) The fact that a work of fiction would depict something vile is not, in itself, an argument against sticking with the story. But I think it says something significant when so much of our popular entertainment portrays such a bleak view of the world, one where good never wins; where, if it does, everyone waits for the mask to come off to reveal the true character underneath. When even the guy who believes in total depravity finds himself saying, “Hey, it’s not that bad,” perhaps it is time to accuse Hollywood of bearing false witness against the world. Our fallen world is dark, but the darkness is not ultimate; not even today, and certainly not forever. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The truest stories know that even in the darkest nights cannot stop the morning.
False stories of an all-black world matter because our entertainment shapes how we see life—what we expect out of it and how we react to it. Already, for example, some observers have speculated that the popularity of House of Cards among political insiders has changed how the media covers scandals by inculcating a sense of inevitability and normalcy about even the most egregious behavior.
When much of our cutting-edge entertainment paints a world without heroes, where standing on principle is always a losing battle and darkness always overcomes the light, how might that shape the way our generation hopes and dreams, plans and reacts, fights and compromises? A false view of the world is an unhealthy and dangerous thing, whether it is held by an aggrieved student or an ambitious screenwriter.