“A History of Mental Illness”: MSM and The Investigation of Domestic Terrorists
A Muslim-American man angry with Israel barged into the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle Friday afternoon and opened fire with a handgun, killing one woman and wounding five others before surrendering to police.
Three of the women were in critical condition late Friday.
A law-enforcement source identified the arrested suspect as Naveed Afzal Haq, 30, who until recently had lived in Everett, and said Haq apparently has a history of mental illness. Court records show Haq has a charge of lewd conduct pending against him in Benton County.
But I am reminded of Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, the freelance jihadist who murdered 3 at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport on July 4, 2002. It took nearly a year for the feds to acknowledge that it was an act of terrorism.
There is a continuum in the media’s coverage of terrorist incidents that runs from John Hinkley through Sirhan Sirhan and Oswald to McVeigh and the 19 of 9/11. Each was a political act, though in Hinkley’s case there wasn’t a “political” motive. But the “mental state” of a terrorist doesn’t help the public sort through the implications of a terrorist act. Any crime of violence done to avenge a political grievance is an act of terrorism. Haq’s murder of at least one employee of the Jewish Federation is an act of terrorism. What the public needs to know is the likelihood of other such acts being committed by similarly situated individuals. Introducing “mental illness” so early in the story is an invitation to say “lone whacko,” and leave it at that. Mistake number one.
There is also a continuum in the amount of organization that surrounds a terrorist, and those with the most organization are state actors, like Lenin and Saddam. The 19 of 9/11 had a lot of organization, and the London bombers of 7/11/05 had enough to kill scores. We don’t know if Haq had any, or even if there were people in his life suspicious of his direction who did not act on it. We don’t know if there was a particular “trigger” or a long thought out plan. If Haq acted alone there will be a temptation to again declare “lone whacko” and leave it at that. Mistake number two.
Cold-blooded killers working in a highly organized network are much more of a threat than voice-hearing lone whackos. But as yesterday proved, the latter can savage a small group and through them a community and a country. It isn’t enough for the vaunted MSM to declare “lone whacko” and move back to the churlishness of the Israelis.
We need to find out a great deal about Haj. Quickly.
In the days after the bombing, dozens of journalists, myself included, descended into Beeston’s narrow streets looking for some sort of insight into what drove the homegrown terrorists to commit their heinous acts.
Driving up Beeston Hill past grimy red brick homes, I initially got the same gut feeling as I had driving along an Appalachian hollow, though this was an urban version. Drying laundry fluttered over tiny weed gardens. A pregnant woman with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other watched a police car drive by.
But it was the teenagers, British Muslims of Pakistani descent, who stood at street corners, smoking and laughing and taunting police investigators, who offered clues to the “social life” of Beeston.
They wore tracksuits and gold chains or imitation designer jeans and tank-tops, and their hair was gelled and well groomed. They had grown up around the bombers, and the thought was, maybe their experiences could offer some insights into what turned locals into eligible suicide bombers.
Did the alienation, cultural clashes and malaise play a role? Did it make the killers easy prey to al-Qaida recruiters? Or could it have been any place, anywhere, any hard luck town with a pub at the bottom of the hill and a mosque down the street?
Five weeks ago seven would-be terrorists, home grown division, were arretsed in Miami. Their stories have largely vanished from the news.
Seven weeks ago 17 would-be terrorists, come grown/Canada division, were arrested in Toronto. Their stories have largely vanished from the news.
So in less than two months we have 25 arrests of terrorists intent on killing in the US, only one of whom succeeded, but the successful one is described by the home town paper as “having a history of mental illness” and the others have dropped off the list of MSM-approved topics for coverage.
Can we agree that all terrorists have some degree of mental illness? Can we also agree that it is completely and utterly irrelevant to the victims of their crimes?
What we need to know –and what the American MSM seems profoundly uninteretsed in– is where did they come from? What made them terrorists?
Let me also raise the possibility that there are many, many more where the 25 came from, but that we don’t know where or how to look for them. Instead of thinking through how such a search can be accomplished without infringement on civil liberties, elite media –the New York Times and Los Angeles Times to be very specific– are busy hobbling our few non-intrusive investigative techniques.
Will it be possible in an era of Hamdan and the cannonization via the Pultizer Committee of national security secret-betraying media martyrs to even ask for details on Haq’s life including what he read and watched, what’s on his computer, where he traveled, and the big question:
Did he ever call anyone overseas, and did they call him back?
The “lone whacko” theory is already attaching itself to Haq. And maybe he was.
But will the American media with the resources to spend millions and millions to dispatch scores of reporters, producers and crews to Israel and Lebanon to do very little in the way of real reporting that could not be borrowed from local broadcast invest a fraction of that cost in figuring out where these people come from? (CNN can just ask for b-roll from Hezbollah. There’s no need to send a CNNer for a staged ride along to doctor it up with the appearance of “reporting.”)
I assume that tomorrow’s papers will tell us much more about Haq. But will they set to work on the much more difficult questions that followed in the wake of the London bombings?
Or will “a history of mental illness” act as a flare to all concerned to move along, nothing to see here?
One final note. Jim Miller is gently hinting at a very crucial story: The responsibility of the press in an era of terror. He does not, nor would any serious commentator, argue for anything other than complete freedom of the media to present whatever headline they want at any time they want.
Miller does raise a very real question of incitement. If the “mental illness” meme is expanded upon, “fire in a crowded theater” also enters the picture.
A very interesting few weeks lay ahead for the American media. It is hard to be an optimist about how it will perform. American Muslims will rightly be concerned about unfair categorizations and generalizations, and the best way to avoid such results is to fully engage the Muslim community in any reporting and analysis.
But the fear of giving offense should not stop the MSM from asking all the hard questions, beginning with “Who is Naveed Afzal Haq and how did he come to become a terrorist?” The same questions, please, for the other 24.