Homegrown Terror: Does America Have Its Eyes Wide Shut?

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By Abraham Cooper and Harold BrackmanSimon Wiesenthal Center

Juxtapose the images of two alleged killers: Scott Roeder, accused of assassinating late-term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in Kansas, and Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (formerly, Carlos Bledsoe), accused of murdering one soldier and maiming another at an Arkansas Army recruitment center after returning to the U.S. from Yemen, which he visited on a false Somali passport. Then ask yourself: what is the threshold that transforms a politically or religiously motivated violent deed into an act of terrorism?

Some cases seem simple enough. There was little reluctance to apply the label "homegrown terrorist" to Timothy McVeigh, who alone was convicted and executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. We at the Wiesenthal Center remember vividly the summer of 1999 when Buford O. Furrow, Jr., was scared off by our security staff before his shooting rampage at a Los Angeles Jewish community center and fatal killing of a Filipino American postal worker. Sentenced to life imprisonment, Furrow was a graduate of the Aryan Nations' church compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, where hatred of Jews and other minorities were pillars of faith and where "leaderless resistance" cloaked the wrath of the "righteous" from the prying eyes of authorities-until rage morphed into action.

Yet today from both sides of the spectrum, though to varying degrees, there seems to be a reluctance to call a terrorist a terrorist whether it emanates from a religious fanatic murdering an abortion provider or a religious fanatic murdering a soldier on American soil to protest the U.S.'s alleged "war on Islam." "We are shocked at this morning's disturbing news that Mr. Tiller was gunned down," said Troy Newman, president of the Operation Rescue, emphasizing his organization's commitment solely to "peaceful, legal means" to stop abortion. Yet his choice of terminology -- "We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning" -- was nevertheless peculiar. Why not call Roeder exactly what, if proven guilty, he is: a homegrown terrorist believing that his "holy cause" justified wanton killing?

More troubling is the fog of euphemism surrounding Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad. Of course, the authorities have to be careful about what they say about a suspect, but how to explain why Little Rock Police Chief Stuart ignored information available that Muhammad had already been under surveillance by an FBI anti-terrorism task force for his suspicious sojourn to Yemen and then went out of his way to describe the alleged assailant as a random shooter -- acting alone not as part of a broader conspiracy -- though likely out of "political and religious motives." As blogger Jeffrey Goldberg points out, the initial reporting about Muhammad by National Public Radio demonstrates that -- just as the Victorians would rather die than utter the word "sex" -- too many in today's politically self-correcting media would rather be caught dead than provide factual information about an American-born terrorist whose motive for murder is a virulent strain of Islam that he learned overseas. NPR provided its listeners with everything they needed to know about Muhammad's alleged offense and arrest except a) his chosen name, b) the name of the religion to which he converted, c) the facts about his excursion to Yemen, and d) his admitted motive to kill as many American soldiers as possible for doing wrong by Islam.

Let's hope that those speaking for American Muslims don't indulge in more euphemism and apologetics by describing the Little Rock murder suspect just as a deranged individual or isolated nut case. Of course, leaders in the Muslim community first have every right to emphasize that the alleged killer should not be lumped together with law-abiding Muslims here or abroad -- even if, as a Zogby poll showed, a large majority of them were against the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democratic dissent doesn't spawn terrorism -- hatred does. But Muslim leaders should also decry foursquare those religious extremists responsible for helping to brainwash an American young man into a self-declared jihadist whose only reported regret was not being able to gun down more American soldiers.

The bottom line is that Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad has no more -- but no less -- in common with religious Muslims than Scott Roeder has with anti-abortion Christians who would never commit or condone murderous violence in the name of their beliefs. So why the double standard on the part of some important media outlets that seem almost eager to describe Roeder as a Christian fundamentalist and a terrorist -- but are loathe to apply similar labels to Muhammad?

More is at stake here than journalistic integrity. For one thing, we cannot expect law enforcement or Homeland Security to adequately do their job -- if Americans keep their eyes wide shut. A case in point: Daniel Pipes' record of the three-decade pattern of "homegrown terrorist" attacks by Muslims, individually or in small groups, against American Jews. It began with the Hanafi Muslims seizing the B'nai B'rith headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 1977 and culminated in the alleged plot by four ex-con converts to Islam to blow up two Bronx synagogues in 2009. Along the way: Hesham Mohamed Ali Hadayet's 2002 attack on the El Al counter at Los Angeles International Airport, killing two, and Naveed Haq's 2006 assault on the Seattle Jewish Federation, murdering one and injuring five. In both cases, authorities as well as the media did their best to deny the murderous Islamist ideology behind the attacks: in other words, to obscure the reality of homegrown but often externally-inspired terrorism.

When it comes to our streets, homes, and communal institutions, the glib formulation that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" ought to be treated as blasphemy by Americans of all religious persuasions. A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist, and no religious leader can lessen the stench or copy editor can Photoshop an alternate reality -- and no decent person should try.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.