Longread: Peter King’s “James Bond” Worldview and the Reality of Mass Killings

Note: There won’t be a Sunday Roundup today. I think that there’s not a ton of other stories that are relevant right now. Instead, here’s an article about the Boston Marathon bombing.

On Saturday, Representative Peter King, famed for that time he held hearings about how Muslims are bad, urged authorities to increase their surveillance of Muslims in wake of the Boston marathon bombing. King praised the NYPD’s illegal program of spying on Mosques and said that we “must realize the threat is coming from the Muslim community and increase surveillance there”.

In addition, Lindsey Graham, Peter King, and John McCain, among others, have urged President Obama to treat Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an “enemy combatant”, presumably removing him from the criminal court so he could be tortured or at the very least held indefinitely.

This Republican reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings has been so totally wrongheaded that it pretty much sums up what’s so flawed about our Western views on terrorism in the first place. First of all, there’s this perception that somehow terrorists are nurtured by Muslim communities. Under this logic, by surveillance of Muslim communities, we can identify potential radicals before they launch attacks.

But even if we ignore, say, anti-discrimination laws and the first, fourth, and fifth amendment, this idea is still dumb. Why is it so dumb? In a word: almost all of the Islamic terrorists that we have seen attempt any type of attack in America since 9/11 have been “lone wolf” terrorists. Tamerlan Tsarnev and his brother Dzhokhar did not attend the local mosque very often. Chechen terrorist groups have roundly denied any connection to the attacks. And the two have no known radical associations. They were even estranged from their families. (All this information and more is available here.)

This is also the case for Mohamed Mohamud, who had stopped attending his local Mosque before he was entrapped into attempting a terrorist attack. Ditto for Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, who did attend his local mosque, but had only a cordial relationship with the Imam and no real ties to other Muslims – or anybody, for that matter. He was a loner, perceived to be potentially dangerous for a while.

In light of all this, it would appear that focusing on Mosque communities to stop “terrorism” is not only immoral, but going to be utterly ineffective. In fact, it appears that what is “Islamic” about Islamic terrorism in America has nothing to do with Islamic communities. Rather, its a way that young, frustrated men justify their turn to horrific violence. In that respect, its distinguishable in name only from the actions of someone like Jared Loughner or Timothy McVeigh. Replace “Muslim” with “Christian” or “Atheist” and you’ve got the same story.

Perhaps the reason King and his ilk don’t want to acknowledge this is because the implications are legitimately scary. King’s bizarre statement that the Tsarnev brothers might be a “treasure trove of intelligence” mere hours after the FBI said that there probably was nobody else involved in the plot shows just how comforting his ideology can be. It constructs the world like a James Bond movie: the good guys versus a shadowy network of super-powerful terrorists. It’s nice to think that our counter-terrorist pals at the NYPD can keep us safe just by violating the rights of a few of our fellow Americans. It’s nice to think that the bad guys are a definite group that we could somehow eliminate. But you can’t track loners, by definition. All the network analysis stuff the FBI is doing to find terrorists is useless when you look at the Tsarnev brothers.

But here’s where it gets even more interesting: The FBI was even warned about Tamerlan Tsarnev by the Russian government. A congressional aide said that, “The FBI had this guy on their radar and somehow he fell off.” Anybody want to take a guess at why he fell off? Although we’ll probably never have any information as to why, exactly,I would guess that its at least in part because he didn’t meet the FBI’s criteria for a terrorist. With no notable radical associations and an abysmal mosque attendance, the FBI probably figured that this guy didn’t fit the profile.

Which brings me to the first of two solutions I’m going to propose as to how we can make sure this never happens again. First, law enforcment has to drop the stereotypes. While it might be nice to invite in pseudo-experts to talk about how Muslims are inherently evil, what law enforcement agencies should really be doing is changing their criteria for who is a suspect. While I’m not saying that 9/11 type stuff couldn’t happen again, looking at local Mosque communities isn’t going to catch that anyway. Rather, the FBI should be looking at people like Tsarnev who are simultaneously becoming more radical and more estranged from their local communities. Because the thing is, religious communities are inherently a conservative, moderate thing. Anybody who is an intergral part of a typical religious community is probably not going to commit a horrific act of terrorism because they have a stake in the place that they live in.

(Also, I’d like to make the obligatory mention of how we should be more worried about far-right terrorism than Muslim terrorism, and just move on.)

So second, in a broader sense, we’ve got to stop treating these attacks solely as a problem of ideology. Can embracing a violent, ultra-conservative ideology help justify an act of terrorism? Sure, I wouldn’t discount that. But we’ve got to address the bigger problem, and it’s an American, Western problem – the fact that men are taught that violence is a good way to get what they want. After all, a bombing in the US is very different than a bombing in Israel. A bombing in Israel is a very concrete action in what is effectively a war. It’s not any less shitty, but its totally explicable politically. Something like what the Tsarnev brothers undertook, or what Timothy McVeigh or Jared Loughner undertook, only makes sense in a worldview where violence is perceived to be the most meaningful way to affect serious change.

Because the one thing shared by all the perpetrators all of the horrible mass killings in America in the last year is that they were men. And since we know that men and women don’t share significant inherent, biological differences in temperament, what I have to conclude is that we’re teaching boys wrong. We’re teaching somebody like Tamerlan Tsarnev (who spent a fair chunk of his key developmental years in America, after all) that violence is a more effective way to create serious political change / resolve his own burning internal conflicts than any other method.

That seems to me like the bigger, more serious problem. But as long as the Peter Kings of the world keep embracing the fantasy of Mosques as “breeding grounds for terror”, we won’t even be able to begin to address it.

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