Political Violence at Transylvania University

Yesterday,my alma mater of Transylvania University, a small private liberal arts college in Kentucky (and the oldest university west of the Appalachians) experienced a tragic instance of right-wing political terrorism. It is reasonable to hesitate in calling something an act of terrorism. To satisfy the definition of terrorism, the act must be political in nature, it must generally be violent, and it must generally be carried out with the intent to create fear or terror among the targeted class. Many things people call “terrorism” aren’t terrorism, because they fail one of those criteria. But the case at hand meets all three.

I should note here that I will not at any point use the alleged attackers name, link to his Facebook profile, or walk through his personal history. It is important that we not make terrorists the center of attention, that we not reward the “propaganda of the deed.” Rather, we should celebrate the police and campus security personnel who rapidly subdued the attacker. Especially the shop workers who attacked the assailant with a chair: HEROES. This is how we respons to terror: we fight back.

This attack just happened yesterday, so it’s very much “developing,” and some facts remain uncertain. But there were enough eyewitnesses that most Transy community members know someone who saw what happened and can confirm the facts for themselves. I’ve been able to find and talk to a number of people who know the alleged attacker, corroborate several eyewitness accounts, and could verify the key facts.

Thus far, the story is as follows. A former student entered the campus coffee shop with a machete and a bag of knives (which, sidenote, what a doofus to bring a bag of knives: under what circumstance does your switchblade get used when you brought a machete? Did you expect some kind of movie-style gun-fu to happen? Terrorists have such overactive imaginations.) and attacked students based on their political affiliation, Columbine-style. The attacker spared a student who said she was a Republican, and attacked another student. The alleged attacker’s Facebook page includes numerous links to far-right news websites, many with comments endorsing the contents of the link. Finally, before attacking, the attacker allegedly said, “ The day of reckoning is here.” Given the directly partisan character of the violence, the evidence of strong political belief matching that partisan character, and the grandiose proclamations that could reasonably be said to suggest an intent to instill fear or to intimidate, it seems clear what we have witnessed at Transylvania.

This was an act of far-right terrorism.

Its purpose was straightforward: to punish political opponents and instill fear in those not attacked. It was propaganda of the deed. Thankfully, there were no fatalities and the attacker was subdued quickly, again, let’s note, thanks in part to the courage of some badass coffee shop workers.

It should be noted, the alleged attacker may have suffered from mental illness (I did not know him personally; his Facebook page indicates that he suffered from memory loss). This is saddening. But this isn’t a story of mental illness: it’s a story of a terrorist. Memory loss doesn’t make you swing a machete. We should not demonize mentally ill people or people who suffer from memory loss just because a person with memory loss allegedly attacked someone else, just as we should not demonize all conservatives because one of them attacked someone with a machete for political reasons.

I should also note, it is possible the alleged attacker had other personal motivations. He had withdrawn from Transylvania some time previously, which could clearly give rise to personal bitterness. But whatever these details, nothing erases the essential core point of the alleged political selection of victims. If it is true, that is the defining detail which classifies the act as terrorism.

For readera who sont know about Transylvania University, let me give you some background. Transylvania University is a very politically liberal university in a very conservative state, Kentucky. This reality was apparently uncomfortable for the attacker, as he wrote an article in BuzzFeed running through all his complaints with the liberal college administration and his fellow students. As a very conservative alumnus of Transylvania, while I don’t necessary agree with all of the individual claims in that article, it did strike a familiar cord. Political shaming and bullying is par for the course at Transylvania.

Before I go further, let me explain why I’m writing this post, and doing so so soon after the attack. I’ve seen many campus and community leaders at Transylvania say we need to have an open campus dialogue. That sounds like a good idea to me, but I fear on campus liberals will legitimately now fear for their safety given an actual far-right terrorist attack, so won’t participate easily, while conservatives will fear being tarred as terror apologists, so won’t participate easily. As a person securely off-campus who doesn’t give a rats ass what you think of me, I hope to advance a line of discussion campus conservatives may find hard to advance openly themselves. They were not the victims of the attack and thus have less cause to feel fear than campus liberals; nonetheless, they may find the campus environment quite suddenly very challenging.

While at Transylvania, I too was routinely the target of ridicule for my beliefs. I was left threatening notes or experienced property damage and vandalism. I had faculty members talk about my political beliefs as if I was everything wrong with America. I saw a university that flirted with serious restrictions on my religious liberty (though, in the end, did not implement any restrictions). I routinely complained to the administration about consistently poor treatment of conservative or religious students by other students, and was ignored. When the university did a survey finding that the two groups most likely to report experiences of discrimination or hostility were (at not totally dissimilar rates) very religious students and LGBTQ students, they launched a program to make LGBTQ students more comfortable (which is fine! I don’t want anyone to feel unsafe!), but did nothing for religious students (not fine). When a school staff member interrogated me in front of other students about my belief in how a human being obtained spiritual salvation (through faith in Christ, for the record), it was fun for me because I love a good argument and was raised by a professional theologian; but knowing no staff member would ever treat someone at the opposite end of the spectrum that way was frustrating. I and other conservatives or Christians could come up with a litany of valid complaints, just as liberal students could at a very conservative school. As a resident advisor, I kept a list of freshman males (the group I supervised) who I worried were at risk of not integrating well and needed extra support from me: most (not all!) were political conservatives, not because conservatism makes people awkward, but because Transylvania made conservatives feel out-of-place, just as the alleged attacker repeatedly complained.

To be clear, there were very good experiences too! I made friends across religious and partisan lines who remain dear friends today, and I grew from being surrounded by differences of opinion. But the point is, ideologically extreme universities like Transylvania (or, to take a more conservative university located in my hometown just 17 miles from Transylvania, Asbury University) have a serious problem. They actually do create feelings of threat and anxiety for those who have different beliefs.

Now, for a liberal at a conservative school like Asbury, that probably won’t manifest in violence. This isn’t because liberals aren’t violent (every group has their violent people), but because a liberal attending a conservative university in a conservative state is probably from that conservative state, and grew up learning to cope. Or, they are somehow otherwise culturally affiliated with that university: for Asbury, maybe they’re politically liberal, but have deep Wesleyan spiritual ties, so they fit in that way.

But a liberal university in a conservative state, or vice versa, means that the most liberal few percent of graduating high school seniors is skimmed off of each more conservative county, and concentrated in one school alongside lots of others who’ve experienced the same life-long political pressure-cooker. The sudden sanctuary of like-mindedness breeds rapid radicalization of students at both ends of the spectrum. So very ideologically extreme universities in very opposite-extreme states will tend to have a baseline culture of radicalism around their university majority group (the local-geography minority group), as well as a smaller but equally or more radicalized group at the other end of the spectrum. The result is that schools with crazy left-wing activists tend to have crazy right-wing activists too, and they feed off of each other.

Why this opposite-end radicalization? Well, people who’ve grown up experiencing very little “group threat” get dumped in and not only exposed to group threat, but graded on how well they comply with campus liberal norms, they’re being charged huge tuition to experience these norms, and they’re told you can’t join the middle class without conforming. I’ve written about this problem before in other contexts. And because the majority-radical-faction uses its newfound power with gusto, massive local over-reach happens, with the local student activist majority (left or right) engaging in cartoonishly villainous over-reach. The dominant activist class uses their university as the canvas on which to paint the most over-the-top version of their ideology they can possibly imagine.

In other words, schools that are at a very different ideological place than the geographic origins of their student bodies need to find ways, not to accelerate student conversion to the university norm, but to foment a more robust pluralism. You can’t do a remedial class teaching me not to believe my religion so much; I promise you, it will backfire. I will bring tracts. But you could try to at least treat my feelings of pressure and anxiety as having some meaningful moral character; don’t just tell me I deserve to feel bad because, well, Republicans are bad, of course. Transylvania doesn’t need to stop being an ideologically extreme campus. It and schools like it just need to make sure that they actually have a non-monopolistic marketplace of ideas, which means a campus culture of extremely robust speech. Nobody should be made to feel ashamed of speaking out loud the beliefs they hold, even if those beliefs (as many of the attacker's beliefs clearly were) are, in fact, pretty horrendous.

From the Middle East to Kentucky, cultural and ideological shame is gasoline on the extremist fire.

If we work to make someone ashamed of their culture, rather than show them within some commonly accepted heuristic where their beliefs are incorrect or inconsistent, we don’t necessarily change their mind. We do, however, enable a festering of hostility. Vigorous rejection of real or perceived imposition of inferiority is a key component to radicalization. When a person is made to feel that they or their culture are less than, they’re likely to just turn around and say, HELL NO WE’RE NOT, I’LL SHOW YOU HOW STRONG I REALLY AM. In a peaceful world, we use this reaction to motivate passionate public debate and peaceful republican engagement in government; it’s a good thing! But in a world where violence is increasingly accepted as a form of political action, it’s important for both sides of the debate to find a better way to channel this response.

Some readers may think I’m blaming Transylvania University for this attack. I am not, so let me be crystal clear.

Political terrorism can be blamed on one person only: the terrorist.

It is not Transylvania University’s fault that a violent political radical got a machete and hurt someone, just as it is not America’s fault some violent religious radicals hijacked some planes and flew into the Twin Towers. There is one person to blame: the one who has offended against the laws of God and man and sought to harm his neighbor. Period. That’s where blame goes.

Unfortunately, assigning moral blame is not enough to make society work. We also need to reduce the incidence of blameworthy events.

One way to bring this about is to try to avoid creating circumstances that enable extremism to fester. That means ensuring that public discourse is not governed by shame and taboo, but by claims to validity, correctness, truth, or shared values rather than exclusive values.

Another line of argument would suggest I’m just cowing to “white fragility,” that is, the tendency of dominant majority groups to freak out at the smallest threat to their power. Is this suggestion accurate? Why should those who are persecuted in the red counties be nice to the Red Team folks who come to Blue Universities?

There are several reasons. As a Christian, I’d say because we should place the needs and sensitivities of others above our own. That’s why, for me personally, while I think political correctness is a bit ridiculous, I try hard to be politically correct: because my view that it’s ridiculous isn’t as important as keeping a public space where everyone can participate free of shame or offense. I will impose no burden on the discourse of others, but impose many on myself. I think all people should function this way.

But many people aren’t Christians and don’t have a similar worldview. So why accommodate this “majoritarian fragility”? Because majority or not, all people are equally valuable! I care about my liberal neighbor! I want them to feel safe! I want my Muslim neighbor to know she is welcome in my home! I want my gay neighbor to know that I would never harm them, indeed I would be the first one to use my 2nd amendment rights if they were threatened with violence! And folks on the left should want their rightist neighbors to feel safe and secure as well! So even aside from the utilitarian argument that, hey, scared people do scary things, you should not want your neighbor to be scared. If you find the physical insecurity of your political opposition comforting, then you have accepted the worldview that underlies all true political terror, from the French Revolution to the Khmer Rouge.

I am praying for three things for the Transylvania University community now.

First and by far the most important, that the victims would have a speedy recovery in mind and body.

Second, that the attacker would be fairly tried his alleged crimes under the law, and if found guilty, punished to the full extent required, such that the force of the law would induce him to feel remorse for his actions, in order that he sincerely repents and seeks reconciliation with the individuals and community he attacked without cause or justification.

Third, that that community would seize this opportunity for a robust and heartfelt discussion about the university’s future. The liberal arts are supposed to serve as an inoculation against this kind of violent extremism, promoting thoughtful discourse and good citizenship. Transylvania University must embed in its institutional framework and culture a zealous commitment to promoting the expression of different viewpoints, providing psychological and emotional support to students facing a variety of pressures including cultural divergence from university norms, and ensuring that students of a wide variety of cultural and ideological backgrounds can find networks of supportive, like-minded people on campus. Without such policies, failures of integration will continue, and the growing extremism of campus politics (on the political left and the political right) will sadly give rise to more tragedies and a culture where political terror is more and more normalized.

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I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.

My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.