Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Terrorists: By Their Targets Shall You Know Them

It would seem that everything possible has been said about the Arizona shooting and what could I possibly have to add? People have debated whether Loughner should be considered an isolated, deranged loner, or influenced by today's political climate. They have debated whether, even if if was an isolated, deranged loner, we should still change today's political climate. A few have even tried to portray him as a left winger or speculated whether the shooting was the work of an illegal immigrant (can't find link). And, of course, many conservative are asking why there was such a rush to judgment on this attack, as opposed to calls to withhold judgment when a Muslim attacks. What original comment could I possibly offer?

I can think of one. When the attack took place, before the attacker was known, the immediate question was whether the attacker was an isolated, deranged loner or an unbalanced extremist who had been watching too much Fox. A few Arizonans (again, can't find link) wondered whether he was an illegal Mexican immigrant.

No one even seems to have considered the possibility of a jihadi. Why not?

My guess would be, this just didn't look like the work of jihad. For one thing, as I've commented before mass shootings in the US are almost always the work of isolated, deranged loners. But more to the point, a Democratic Arizona Congresswoman, or a federal judge who (presumably) handles mostly border and immigration cases just aren't the sort of target that interests jihadis.

Likewise, some people thought the Times Square bomb might be be the work of anti-government militias, but it seemed fairly obvious to me that it had to be the work of jihadis. Why? Because it was in Times Square, not exactly a hangout for "patriot" militias, but exactly the sort of target that appeals to Islamic extremists. Ditto blowing up airplanes, attacks on military bases, and, of course, 9-11. By contrast, the Oklahoma City bombing looked like the work of homegrown anarchists because it was an obvious attack on the federal government, rather than an attack on America.

Certainly, there was an unseemly rush to judgment here. But when an Arizona Democratic Congresswoman who had been the target of prior vandalism and death threats because of her votes on healthcare and immigration, it is not too far-fetched to guess that the attacker is probably a constituent displeased with her political positions. The impression is strengthened when a fellow victim was a federal judge who received death threats over controversial decisions on immigration. It is also a very good bet that the attacker is mentally unbalanced. (And, in fact, Loughner was a constituent who was displeased with with his Representative's positions. It just turned out that his displeasure was over her view on the meaning of language. Who could have guessed that?)

In short, I agree that when news comes out of a shocking terrorist attack, we should not rush to judgment before learning the facts. But it is also true that we will probably have some initial intuitions about who was behind it. And these intuitions are generally a pretty good guide.