I’ve heard all the explanations-no education, no prospects, only the color of your skin to console you, rage from childhood disappointments, rage at being unable to buy or lease that Lexus spinning out of the wicked primal soup on your TV, energy but no place to go, loneliness as vast and cold as the tundras of Alaska, the shards of the shattered American dream held like a weapon in a bloodied hand-but I still don’t understand it. A skinhead in Denver killed a black man waiting for a bus and paralyzed a white woman who tried to stop him. He told the reporters he’s at war with non-Christian, nonwhite America, and in a war, you naturally want to mount a decent body count. There is a temptation just to call him Satan, the beast from hell, and shrug it off. After all, his breed is rare enough, the gang he hangs with is feeble in numbers-pathetic, really. Look how the poor in verbal skills try to scare the rest of us, declaring war on civilization. But something tells me that it would be a mistake to shrug him off. The fact is, I could talk him to death, but he could kill me. Should such an encounter actually take place, say, at a bus stop on Broadway and 96th Street, his death would be a metaphor while mine would be real and final. In this, the kid with the icy eyes and the strange tattoos and the muscles bulging in the upper arms has a huge advantage.
What we have here is the place where private fury (did his daddy beat him, did his mommy drink, did he need Ritalin or was he born with a chromosome bent or doubled?) ends in arson, mayhem, random murder when linked up to ideas such as purity, or racial sanctity, or religious superiority. He believes this country is his, not ours. Of course, we’ve heard it all before: Nazi paraphernalia discovered in the rooming house, swastikas tattooed on the scalp. We’ve heard it all before, ever since the Crusaders, certain that the Christian God was egging them on, massacred, prayed and stole their way across the continent. We heard it when the Ku Klux Klan burned its crosses on lawns meant for children’s bikes, daisies and three-leaf clover. We heard it when the strange fruit of the South swung from trees and the men below puffed up their chests and swaggered back to their pickup trucks, their chariots of false virtue.
We recognize the type. They were there in 1903: Cossacks swarming the streets of little towns of unarmed people, raping girls and killing their fathers and brothers. White foam forming at their horses’ mouths as the animals reared and raced down narrow alleys. Those Cossack uniforms were uniform enough, their minds were filled with civic duty. They were fighting the same war as the skinhead in Denver, despite the fact that much time has passed since the last pogrom and the motherland has a different name.
Which brings me to William Buckley and William Kristol and their desire to call America a Christian land. It brings me to Dartmouth College, whose president recently apologized for the quotas of the past, causing Mr. Buckley and company to defend the Christianizing of students at a university founded for just such a purpose. Whose land is it, anyway? Yes, they have a point. The vast majority in America is Christian. The rest of us, Jews and Buddhists, Moslems and atheists, agnostics and worshipers of the elephant god, are certainly in a minority, a vulnerable minority. We are noisy. We have influence on public policy way beyond our actual head count. But we should never forget that we are outnumbered, not barely but hugely, vastly. The Constitution and our political vision may speak of pluralism, tolerance, equal rights, etc., but when it comes down to it, we survive on the sometime willingness of the majority to obey its own laws, to allow us to exist both spiritually and physically. And there are no unshakable, irrevocable guarantees. We can claim this is our country, too, with all our might, but our might isn’t much. William Kristol is right: It does seem rather nervy of us to demand admission to first-rate universities on the basis of scores and grades and forget the religious affiliation. He is right that the public school was created for those who pray to Christ, not for those who, when in need, call God by other names or don’t call God at all. The symbols of Christian culture are the norms in every mall across the land, and the crèche has a higher approval rating than the Maccabees and the Dalai Lama put together, and that is simply a fact.
The question that Messrs. Buckley, Kristol et al. are raising is a serious one: What is the right way for a minority to live securely among a majority? We can call for a neutral public square, we can remind everyone that religious domination tends to turn ugly. When a culture, Christian for example, gets too full of itself, it tends to want to eat its neighbors. In the end, the bloodshed is not good for business, not to mention any moral issues that might be at stake. But we also know that denying people their religious or cultural paraphernalia is not wise. It makes for hostility. It causes bad feeling. It makes some Christians feel that they are at war with the rest of us. It makes for silly scenes like groups of high school students, in defiance of the law, holding prayer sessions in their high school gyms. Religious triumphalism suppressed ends up in shouts of “Allah is great!” and throat slashings and such. Religious triumphalism unrepressed ends up in the same place.
Mr. Buckley, Mr. Kristol and company are certainly civilized folk and would never harm the hair on a child’s head even if the child came from Upper West Side parents with an alien-oh, horrors!-liberal culture. However, the skinheads among us are only the enforcers, the ground troops of the others. If the culture is deemed officially Christian, and Dartmouth can feel proud of its heritage of excluding qualified Jews, then the message to the musclemen is go ahead, do your worst, we’ll shake our heads and look away. There is a line, hard to prove, hard to see, but nevertheless real that connects the Christian talk of the intellectuals to a literal burning of the minority that dwells in their midst. In truth, the skinhead in Denver believes only what Mr. Buckley believes: This is a Christian country and it is mine and no apologies should be offered for old injustices. I am not accusing the neoconservatives of harboring skinheads in the offices of the Weekly Standard , but I am saying that the ideas of one are not so different from the ideas of the other.
Now comes the problem. How are we to maintain our freedoms and our respect in a country where the religious right pushes hard to make its culture the only one? I am not convinced that we shouldn’t allow prayer groups in schools or crèches in the town square. We need to talk more about the tactics of the thing. Perhaps the majority is entitled to its symbols wherever and whenever it wishes them. But we all know that only the thinnest of membranes separates religious power from murder of the minority. That comes along with the deal. The skinhead is no intellectual, but, in speaking out for Christian America, the intellectuals of the Christian right must take some responsibility for the skinhead.