So, the Austin bomber was part of a Christian homeschooling group that also practiced survivalist training. The group called itself “R.I.O.T”–which stands for “Righteous Invasion of Truth.” If that rings a bell, it might be from this 1996 Carman song:
Above, Christian pop singer Carman’s “R.I.O.T.” video. Watch it with the sound off and you’ll think it’s about the workers of the world uniting. But the lyrics are about spiritual warfare: “But before this church is raptured/There’s no way we’re gonna leave here quiet/We want a righteous invasion of truth/We want a R.I.O.T.”
Though there is much we still don’t know about Mark Anthony Conditt, there is a lot we could have accurately predicted once we saw that the bombs were targeting African Americans in Austin: that the perpetrator would be a white man and that news coverage about him would try to cultivate empathy for him. Everyone would be surprised by his identity. No one would have suspected him.
Which tells us more about us than about him.
Here’s a telling excerpt from the British newspaper The Independent:
“He and and his family are as normal as I’ve seen anybody,” Jeff Reeb, a neighbour of the Conditt family in Pflugerville for approximately 17 years, told The Independent.
Former friends remembered Conditt as a “pretty normal kid” who was home-schooled by his “conservative, strictly religious” family in Pflugerville.
Conditt attended RIOT events with his younger sister, said Cassia Schultz, who was also involved in the group.
“A lot of us were very into science; we would discuss chemicals and how to mix them and which ones were dangerous,” Ms Schultz told BuzzFeed News.
The 21-year-old added: “We were into weapons and stuff. A lot of us did role-playing, and RPG [role-playing games]; we’d have foam weapons and act out a battle.”
Ms Schultz said many young people involved in RIOT carried knives and learned to shoot firearms at gun ranges, but she did not recall bomb-making being a topic of discussion.
RIOT was set up and named by home-schooled children of high school age in Pflugerville and their families. The group’s events, which also included archery and water balloon fights, included up to an hour of Bible study.
Ms Schulz said she had not seen Conditt for three or four years and was “completely shocked” to hear he was the bomber.
“Nobody has mentioned him being violent or anything like that,” she added.
EVERY DETAIL IN this section of the story is about his interests in violence: The acronym “R.I.O.T.” is violent. The metaphor of a “righteous invasion of truth” is violent. Being “into weapons and stuff” is violent. Carrying knives is violent. Shooting guns is violent. The fact that the news can’t find a friend who has been in touch with him in the last years–that’s a problem.
Don’t get me wrong: lots of kids play with foam swords and turn out not to be racial terrorists. My own little Girl Scout will be taking archery this summer. Lots of people are lonely, and the vast majority don’t end up being bombers.
It’s not any one of those things. It’s that no one–and especially not the people who actually fostered these habits–seems to be able to imagine that these things could add up to real-life violence.
To say it differently: Conservative Christians teach that America is in decline; that this decline is due, in part, to pluralism and tolerance; and that Christians MUST take radical action to turn the nation toward God again. Add a healthy dose of American racism and gun fetishism and racial terrorism looks appealing. Most people who are armed and racist and knee deep in an eschatology that calls for violence to proceed the Second Coming don’t turn into killers–but we should think of those as necessary if not sufficient conditions for some kinds of violence.
Sure, Carman isn’t going to turn anyone into a terrorist. But listen to some more of those lyrics:
It’s true, now’s the time to win nations for the Lord
And it’s true, now’s an hour, the saints must go to war
We’ll preach it, we’ll sing it, we’ll shout it, we’ll cry it
‘Cause desperate times need desperate action
And that means we need a R.I.O.T.
Carman is neither a poet nor a theologian, but he captures the violence that much of conservative Christianity preaches as necessary to national survival. We would be concerned if we heard a group of young Muslims naming their homeschooling/survivalist club after these lyrics. We need to ask, too, how conservative Christianity plays into the kind of violence white Christian men like Conditt inflict.