Beware of Initial Suspicions



Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma City, 1995Remember Ibrahim Ahmad? He was the American citizen of Palestinian descent who happened to be travelling to visit family in Jordan right after the bomb exploded at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. That bombing in 1995 resulted in the deaths of 168 people.

Ahmad was allowed to travel to Jordan but he was stopped and interrogated in Chicago and then again in London. His baggage was seized and — sure enough — reported to contain “bomb-making equipment.” A lot of people, including most of the American press, jumped to the conclusion that someone of Middle Eastern descent, probably Ahmad, had had something to do with the bombing of the federal building. But Ahmad was eventually found to have had nothing at all to do with the bombing. His luggage contained only a VCR, a hammer and some caulk, needed to work on his house in Jordan.

The real culprit for the Oklahoma bombing, Timothy McVeigh, was arrested within 90 minutes of the bombing, and the puzzle pieces of his guilt were slowly lining up, but no matter. Four days after the explosion, President Clinton intoned darkly about “loud and angry voices” who “spread hate … and leave the impression that violence is acceptable.” In a book published later, Clinton advisor Dick Morris outlined how the White House at the time specifically tried to associate House Speaker Newt Gingrich, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and the entire conservative movement with conservative militias, who would be blamed for the Oklahoma City bombing. It worked. Groups of Americans may have been unfairly smeared, but President Clinton was able to use the popular emotions to resurrect his presidency.

Suspicions based on emotion instead of fact have a pretty bad track record.

Then there was the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, federal judge John Roll and several others on January 8, 2011. Within minutes of the shootings, although she was not the shooter, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin was blamed because of a Palin-authored campaign ad that included Congresswoman Giffords in “cross-hairs,” marked for re-election defeat.

The real shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had never seen the campaign ad in question, and he had shot others who were not referred to in the cross-hairs ad. It was later revealed that Loughner suffered from schizophrenia, was enraged about a recent job loss and being suspended from college.

Now comes Monday’s twin bombings in Boston, leaving three dead and scores of people severely injured as the result of an attack that is clearly terrorist in nature but otherwise pretty mysterious. The questions of who and why are as of yet unanswered, suspicions are being provided anyway.

A Saudi national was detained and then released, but still speculation swirls around this man who was initially determined to be a person of interest.  As of right now no arrests have been made though there is a report that a suspect may have been identified through some security footage.

Political connections have also been made. Pundit Chris Matthews said domestic terrorists are usually “on the far right,” ignoring other notorious domestic leftist terrorist groups like the Earth Liberation Front, the Weather Underground and the Puerto Rican nationalist group known as FALN. Michael Moore tweeted “Tax Day. Patriots Day,” implying that these conservative issues inspired whoever was behind the explosions. And House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer has connected the Boston explosions with the recent sequestration, and the cuts in government spending.

Give me a break. Until we know who or what group was behind these explosions, it is grossly unfair to speculate on the guilt of any group of Americans, or to blame some Americans for the actions of some terrorists.

About the only speculation I am willing to make is this, and it has more to do with tactics than a specific suspect or group of suspects: the more we use drones to kill suspected overseas terrorists and the less we capture and interrogate them, the more we may be stuck with government statements like the latest ones, of not knowing who or what is behind Monday’s bombings in Boston. Drones kill terrorists, and what information they have on possible other attacks dies with them. Of course, the Boston bombings may have been totally homegrown, but if there is an international element to them, this “drone or capture” issue is sure to reappear.

But more capturing and interrogating suspects or their helpers is politically risky. More captors being interrogated in Guantanamo and in other rendition sights is something we American citizens might not like. Do we have the stomach to allow our government to capture and keep potential terrorists or their helpers? It is a question we are likely to reconsider after this attack.

Nevertheless, there are some facts we do know about Monday’s bombings in Boston: the bombs were part of a terrorist operation, and they put together and timed to produce a massive body count. If not for the actions of the police, at least two more bombs nearby would have also exploded. But we know next to nothing beyond that. Still waiting for facts.

So we need to beware of our first suspicions, or even of those handed to us by anyone who ventures a theory. Despite the initial understanding, incorrect suspicions can feel correct, but they are still incorrect. Just ask Ibrahim Ahmad.

Picture Credit: Federal Emergency Management Agency (Public Domain)

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