Saturday, December 09, 2006

The media and terrorism

A couple of days ago Will Femia at's Clicked observed:
While I understand the point Dave Neiwert is making about non-Muslim terrorists not getting the same media hysteria treatment, I'm glad that we didn't have to endure another round of fretting, hand wringing and empty political gestures about the threat of terrorism.

I responded:
I agree. The chief problem is all the hand-wringing and fear-mongering that erupts whenever a Muslim is involved in any act that might potentially be deemed "terrorist" but is most often simply a crime. Secondarily, of course, I also think that domestic terrorists like this deserve at least some attention, since the record demonstrates that they are more of a consistent threat than Al Qaeda. What cases like these demonstrate is the extraordinary blind spot -- induced by an absurd, and frankly racist, double standard -- that is in place in the media regarding domestic terrorism.

Yet there on the front page of's site last night was a headline reporting, "Man accused of plotting 'jihad' in Ill. mall," linking to an NBC News report on the case:
CHICAGO - A Muslim convert who talked about his desire to wage jihad against civilians was charged Friday in a plot to set off hand grenades at a shopping mall during the Christmas rush, authorities said.

Investigators said Derrick Shareef, 22, was acting alone and never actually obtained any grenades.

"He fixed on a day of December 22nd on Friday ... because it was the Friday before Christmas and thought that would be the highest concentration of shoppers that he could kill and injure," said Robert Grant, the agent in charge of the Chicago FBI office.

Shareef, of Rockford, was arrested when he met with an undercover agent in a parking lot to trade a set of stereo speakers for four hand grenades and a handgun.

Shareef had no accomplices and was not part of a terrorist cell, sources told NBC News.

Officials said Shareef had been under investigation since September, when he told an acquaintance that "he wanted to commit acts of violent jihad against targets in the United States as well as commit other crimes."

The acquaintance immediately informed the FBI, officials said.

Federal officials said Shareef planned to set off four hand grenades in garbage cans at the CherryVale Mall in Rockford, about 90 miles northwest of Chicago.

The story was featured on the NBC Nightly News broadcast with Brian Williams, complete with a report from veteran correspondent Pete Williams, who noted ominously that even though he "likely couldn't have carried out the attack," nonetheless "there's no telling what he might have done if they hadn't found him."

It was clear, as Williams reported, that Shareef had no connections to any known terrorist groups, and that his plot constituted a conspiracy of one. Indeed, it was clear that he was also incompetent to the point of harmlessness: Williams reported that he attempted to buy the grenades by trading some stereo speakers for them.

What's most likely, in fact, is that Shareef belongs with the gallery of mentally unstable "lone wolves" who have been making headlines in recent months with terrorist acts against a variety of targets.

Meanwhile, the usual suspects -- including Michelle Malkin and Little Green Footballs -- were busy holding up their end of the bargain, twisting the hand-wringing into outright hatemongering.

Compare all this coverage to that afforded the case that was the subject of my earlier post: Demetrius "Van" Crocker, whose case was thoroughly detailed last April in a John Branston piece in the Memphis Flyer.

Branston correctly describes the case as one involving
... a white supremacist dealing with a crooked security employee at a weapons arsenal to buy stolen ingredients to make deadly Sarin nerve gas; a plot to use dirty bombs, nerve gas, and conventional weapons against federal and state courthouses and the U.S. Capitol, while the House and Senate were in session; a plot that was foiled by an informant; and a dramatic takedown by FBI agents with their guns drawn seconds after the Sarin canister and package of C-4 explosives changed hands.

Like Shareef, Crocker was hardly a model of competence; like Shareef, he envisioned himself a "lone wolf" striking back at the system:
Martyrdom isn't in the cards for Crocker, who began flirting with neo-Nazi groups as a teenager. His trial attracted little media coverage, even though reports of it made The New York Times and other national papers. He had no followers or courtroom supporters other than his 16-year-old son, who briefly took the stand as an inconsequential defense witness. Crocker himself -- bald, glasses, medium build, dressed in khakis and a pressed shirt -- did not testify. He behaved himself in the courtroom, and marshals hustled him in and out of the federal courthouse through a garage where he could not be photographed.

But Crocker said plenty on the tapes, some of which were recorded while his 4-year-old daughter sat in the back seat of agent Burroughs' truck. Burroughs pretended to be a fellow white supremacist and a security employee at the weapons arsenal in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Their conversations, filled with profanity, racial slurs, and Crocker's fantastic schemes were apparently enough to convict. Jurors declined to be interviewed.

"There is no doubt he had everything he needed to cause all sorts of destruction in the United States," said assistant U.S. attorney Fred Godwin, noting that McVeigh used commonly available materials to blow up the Murrah Building.

The piece includes transcripts of the tapes the FBI made as it gathered evidence against him, which give you a pretty clear idea of the nature of Crocker's motivations:
Crocker: "I ain't wantin' it to be no ruthless murder, you know. ... Only just certain people even have an idea of anything, that I knowed, trust all my life, that's just like me. ... You see no other way out and you see an opportunity to strike a blow at 'em, then so be it. I'm not for goin' out here and just wastin' honest people."

Burroughs: "Just dumb, dumb, dumb ignorant people."

Crocker: "Yeah. Not for that. So, ah, somethin' big, if I had to, federal, federal courthouse."

When I briefly noted the Crocker case last year, I observed that it reflected "the hard reality that terrorism does not always come from abroad, from brown-skinned foreigners, but often from our own midst as well; and that at the root of all of them lies a broad disaffection with modernity; and that truly winning the fight against terrorism requires us to confront and defuse that disaffection."

If you look at the facts of the two cases, the similarities are remarkable, including the fact that both Shareef and Crocker were tripped up by informants, and that their plots were thoroughly documented by FBI agents prior to their arrests. Indeed, it's clear that, even though the FBI has decidedly skewed its domestic-terrorism priorities under the Bush administration to focus on eco-terrorists, the anti-terrorism professionals doing the daily work of law enforcement continue to work hard to defuse domestic terrorism from all stripes of would-be terrorist.

Dealing with the entire range of terrorist threats, after all, is at the heart of taking terrorism seriously, in no small part because they are deeply intertwined:
While eco-terrorists are a serious problem, and deserve certainly serious prosecution under the law, the level of threat they represent is proportionally so much less than that from the far-right "Patriot" movement and white supremacists as to raise serious questions about the priorities of both the FBI and the Justice Department. Certainly it is worth observing, as does It's a Crock, that "eco-terrorist" Jeff Luers -- who torched three SUVs and took care to do so when it was unlikely anyone would be harmed -- is serving a 22-year prison sentence, while William Krar -- who built a cyanide bomb designed to kill perhaps a hundred people or more -- is facing a mere 15 years. When left-wing terrorists begin actually killing and maiming people and blowing up federal buildings with day cares inside them, or even plotting to do so, perhaps then they will deserve the kind of focus being accorded them under the Bush and Ashcroft style of governance.

Moreover, lest anyone think that the American far right is incapable of serious damage and not really in al Qaeda's class, it's probably useful to recall that before Sept. 11, the most lethal terrorist attack on American soil was committed by American right-wing extremists, with a toll similar to Spain's recent losses.

And contrary to those who argue that an emphasis on law enforcement is inadequate, the reality is that a one-two punch of intelligence and law enforcement is extraordinarily effective in stopping terrorism, at least domestically. One of the points that emerged from my in-depth work for MSNBC on domestic terrorism was that of the 40-plus cases of serious domestic terrorism we identified as arising in the 1995-2000 period, the vast majority had in fact been nipped in the bud by law enforcement before the would-be terrorists could act, largely through effective intelligence-gathering and aggressive arrests and prosecution. There is no reason this same approach would not be effective on a global scale -- unless, of course, one was allergic to cooperating with the very concept of international law enforcement.

The key difference in the Crocker and Shareef cases lies in the media coverage. Shareef's arrest was covered by the major networks and in a variety of leading newspapers, and his trial will probably be well covered. Crocker's arrest, on the other hand, was only briefly noted at the time, and no one covered his trial. His eventual sentencing only made the interior pages of the local papers.

This reveals a fairly stark double standard at play in the media -- one that is innately racist, though probably not consciously so. Rather, this is an institutional problem. The shape of most current coverage of terrorism is focused almost solely on Al Qaeda and Middle Eastern terrorism, and has been since well before Sept. 11 -- recall, if you will, that the media initially pinned the blame for Oklahoma City on Arab terrorists -- but it became even more pronounedly so in the days, months, and years since.

One of the clearer expressions of that double standard was voiced by Howard Kurtz when discussing the abominable treatment of terrorism suspect Jose Padilla by the government in custody:
I don't know. It depends on whether you believe that someone accused of plotting a dirty-bomb attack should have to wear blacked-out goggles and have his legs shackled when he is taken outside solitary confinement for a dentist's appointment.

It seems likely that Kurtz would not be so blithe if it had been Crocker -- a white "good ol' boy" -- who had been treated this way, despite the fact that Crocker had been plotting to blow up Congress. But then, the example of Crocker would have made all too clear just how inhumanly abusive this kind of treatment really is.

The problem is that today's mainstream media have a series of prepackaged narratives regarding various issues and personalities, and anything that falls outside that narrative, or worse yet that might reveal the narrative's basic falsity, is quietly ignored. The narrative on terrorism is a comforting one that fits in with the Bush administration's "war on terror" -- essentially a political marketing campaign. It's one that assures us that terrorists are a foreign threat best confronted militarily, a line of narrative that makes invasions and fabricated wars like that in Iraq not only palatable but desirable.

It is essential, as always, to assess these threats realistically. And offhand, it's obvious that on the surface at least our homegrown fundamentalist terrorists are a lesser terrorism threat, as Jeffrey Bale explained in detail -- thought it's worth noting that cases like Shareef's suggest that would-be Islamist terrorists in the United States are developing a "lone wolf" syndrome similar that of white supremacists.

But as I later explained:
It's true that, generally speaking, domestic terrorists are neither as competent nor as likely to pose a major threat as most international terrorists, particularly Al Qaeda. And the belief systems that feed the domestic terrorists have not become pervasive in popular Western culture the way Al Qaeda and Wahhabism generally have insinuated themselves in the Islamic world (though there has been an increasing blurring of the lines between the mainstream and extremist right in recent years).

Nonetheless, given the right actors, the right weapons, and the right circumstances, they remain nearly as capable of inflicting serious harm on large numbers of citizens as their foreign counterparts. This is especially true because they are less likely to arouse suspicion and can more readily blend into the scenery.

Most of all, what they lack in smarts or skill, they make up for in numbers: Since the early 1990s, the vast majority of planned terrorist acts on American soil -- both those that were successfully perpetrated and those apprehended beforehand -- have involved white right-wing extremists. Between 1995 and 2000, over 42 such cases (some, like Eric Rudolph, involving multiple crimes) were identifiable from public records.

Some of these were potentially quite lethal, such as a planned attack on a propane facility near Sacramento that, had it been successful, would have killed several thousand people living in its vicinity. Krar's cyanide bomb could have killed hundreds. Fortunately, none of these plotters have proven to be very competent.

The rate has slowed since 2000, but the cases have continued to occur. And someday, our luck is going to run out. Certainly, if we are counting on their incompetence, the fact that the anthrax killer (whose attacks in fact were quite successful in their purpose) has not yet been caught should give us pause. Likewise, if Al Qaeda attacks again, that will likely signal a fresh round of piggybacking.

The very real and very lethal threat of domestic terrorism is underscored by the numbers that existed prior to 9/11:
Between 1980 and 2000, the FBI recorded 335 incidents or suspected incidents of terrorism in the United States, according to the Congressional testimony in February 2002 of Dale L. Watson, then the assistant director for counterterrorism and counterintelligence for the FBI.

"Of these, 247 were attributed to domestic terrorists, and 88 were determined to be international in nature," Watson said.

Watson's prepared remarks did not provide details, but he noted that right-wing extremism in the 1990s overtook left-wing terrorism "as the most dangerous domestic threat to the country."

It's always helpful to remember that whenever American fundamentalists are arrested for terrorism plots, they almost invariably are found with substantial armaments, while would-be terrorists like Shareef have to trade in their stereo speakers.

But you'll probably never hear that point raised in the mainstream media, either.

No comments: