Friday, October 14, 2005

Mad bombers

You may think you know what you're dealing with -- but believe me, you don't. -- Noah Cross to Jake Gittes

It's been kind of heartwarming, really, to see the American right -- almost overnight, seemingly -- become all aflutter at the prospect of domestic terrorism as a potentially significant front in the war on terror.

There's only one problem: They seem to be operating under the illusion that the most likely source of this threat is from radical Islamists.

Most of the flurry of worry from the right is coming from a feeding frenzy over a suicide bombing at the University of Oklahoma. So far, all of their speculation has been built on a foundation of apparently false "facts."

Besides a Washington Times editorial built on a groundless presumption that Hinrichs was potentially associated with Al Qaeda or other radical Muslims, there have been numerous reports on Fox and various right-wing radio talk shows (in Seattle, KVI's John Carlson devoted an entire show to the subject). The right blogosphere -- led by Michelle Malkin, of course -- has chimed in, with contributions from such luminaries as Jawa Report, Wizbang, and the ever-enlightened Little Green Footballs.

Next thing you know, they start seeing an Islamist suicide bomber behind every homemade bomb that turned up. LGF trumpeted an explosive device found at UCLA, while Malkin and others began hyping some bombs in plastic containers found at Georgia Tech.

Of course, it turned out that the latter was just a pasty-faced student who says the whole thing was a prank. There's only fleeting mention of this on the blogs who trumpeted the case. (There's still no word yet on the UCLA case, but don't be shocked if there's a similar outcome.)

Likewise, much of the factual grounding for the hysteria about Islamist suicide bombers in Oklahoma is looking, well, questionable at best. It turns out that he did not attend a local mosque, had never visited there, and he was not Muslim; it appears doubtful that he attempted to enter the stadium.

But the fearmongering has been good for something: creating fear among Muslims in the vicinity:
Distorted media stories have city and student Muslim communities on edge, after it was revealed that bomber Joel "Joe" Henry Hinrichs roomed with a Muslim student at the Parkview apartments near the University of Oklahoma campus.

However, the FBI has found no connection between the 21-year-old engineering major, who died from an explosion at about 7:30 p.m. Saturday about 100 yards outside OU's Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium packed with more than 84,000 fans, and the Muslim community, other than other than Hinrichs' rooming with OU finance major Fazal M. Cheema from Pakistan.

And Hinrichs apparently never visited the Masjid An-Nur Islamic mosque that has served the Muslim community at 1304 George Avenue since 1978.

"He had never been to our mosque and he's not associated with our mosque in any way, shape or form," said 44-year-old Mohamed Farid Elyazgi, who has lived in Norman with his family since 1985. "We had never seen him until we saw his picture in the media."

Elyazgi emphasized that Islam forbids suicide and Muslims condemn all acts of violence.

He said many area Muslims have become concerned about television stations filming stories about the bombing in front of the mosque and its sign, fearing it could fan fear and perhaps violence against Muslims or associate the incident with the Islamic Society of Norman.

The source of the problem -- beyond the fearmongers themselves -- as the Oklahoma Daily pointed out in an editorial, is an FBI that has put the clamps on any information and left the public in the dark:
Remember, the FBI has commandeered this investigation. In doing so and by not telling anyone anything, they are only allowing the events of Oct. 2 to be misinterpreted over and over by people who are firm in believing something that is false and terribly dangerous.

For example, unsubstantiated claims that Hinrichs had been frequenting the Norman mosque have managed to seep onto television news broadcasts even though everyone we have contacted at the mosque says Hinrichs was never seen there.

So who is lying? Inherently, people should perceive the unfounded news broadcasts as the liars, but that doesn't always happen. And even if only one person sees and believes such a report there or online, word of mouth can transmit that "truth" to hundreds or thousands within a matter of days.

Which is why it is undeniably the duty of the FBI to break its unctuous vow of silence and talk to somebody. The longer the feds delay in doing so, the more they become equally responsible for misinformed social reactions as the hacks who started these rumors in the first place.

The FBI's tight-lippedness is largely standard policy, though the agency has been known to relax it when it serves the public interest; this appears to be such a case, however, given the extraordinary and irresponsible speculation that the case has elicited.

The hysterical reaction from the right recalls the first few days after the Oklahoma City bombing, when speculation of Middle Eastern terrorist involvement ran rampant, and a number of Muslims were made to suffer as a result. Then, of course, it turned out that the bombing had been perpetrated by a couple of right-wing extremist white men.

The similarities of the most recent case in Oklahoma to that earlier tragedy underscore the seriousness of what's at stake here. Hinrichs apparently did try to buy a large amount of ammonium nitrate a few weeks before; there are other indications he may have intended to kill large numbers of people with his bomb.

It's worth noting that some news reports have described him as someone with a long interest in guns and explosives -- interests that are more indicative of right-wing proclivities than any pro-Islamist or left-wing sympathies.

But caution is always called for with domestic terrorism, particularly when it comes to sorting out motives. When entering that aspect of the problem, you're entering a hall of mirrors in which things often are not what they seem.

Certainly, focusing on the M.O. of the perpetrators gives us only an oblique guess at best. The ammonium nitrate certainly reeks of Tim McVeigh, but we can't assume that Joel Hinrichs was a right-wing militiaman because of it.

Likewise, the appearance of plastic bottles as a bomb container -- seized upon by the right-wing bloggers as potential evidence of a larger plot -- is meaningless in the larger context of what we know about homemade bombs.

Lots of people besides terrorists make such devices -- usually young males with slightly less sense than your average rock and a preternatural interest in things that go boom. Most of these amateurs nowadays get their recipes off the Web, from such places as the "Terrorist's Handbook", which recommends the following:
Plastic containers are perhaps the best containers for explosives, since they can be any size or shape, and are not fragile like glass. Plastic piping can be bought at hardware or plumbing stores, and a device much like the ones used for metal containers can be made. The high-order version works well with plastic piping. If the entire device is made out of plastic, it is not detectable by metal detectors.

When it comes to actual terrorists, the next most likely suspects are so-called "lone wolves," who attack for ideological reasons that are often idiosyncratic. These can include such figures as Ted Kaczynski, but far and away more common are the Eric Rudolph type of right-wing extremist, including the many abortion-clinic bombers who have tended to remain at large more often than not. All of these extremists -- including McVeigh -- emerge from an ideological milieu that encourages and embraces violence as a means of enforcing its own bizarre version of morality.

The least likely kinds of terrorists to engage in these kinds of attacks on American soil, however, are Middle Eastern extremists. In fact, there has never been a record of even an attempt at such a lone-wolf suicide bombing in the USA -- though, of course, this does not preclude it from happening. Nonetheless, the history of homemade bombs strongly suggests we look elsewhere for motives when trying to sift through the evidence.

The concern about domestic terrorism raised by the recent Oklahoma case has some legitimate dimensions, but the right wing seems interested in none of these. All they actually seem interested in is tarring Muslims by association.

So I have a hunch that, when these turn out to have nothing to do with radical Islamists -- which seems nearly certain in all of these cases -- their recent concern about domestic terrorism as a front in the war on terror will turn off like a light switch. The cases will be dismissed as "isolated incidents." Malkin in particular has a history of this.

Likewise, expect no mea culpas regarding the groundless fears they raised about local Muslim communities with their thoughtless rhetorical bombs. They were too busy having their own little blast.

But then, a good smear is always easier than the hard work of keeping us safe, isn't it?

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