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July 31, 2006

Is Haq a terrorist? Does it matter?

Posted by David Postman at 9:03 PM

After spending the day Saturday writing about Naveed Haq I had a hard time thinking of him as a symbol of anything other than of the ravages of mental illness. I was the rewrite guy on the profile of Haq. The picture that emerged from reporting largely done by reporters Michael Berens and Jonathan Martin was of a guy who spent at least a decade battling mental illness.

At the time of the shooting he was awaiting trial on a lewd conduct charge that came after he was arrested in a Kennewick mall, standing on a fountain, shouting at women at the Macy's cosmetic counter and, allegedly, exposing himself to a young woman. In the court papers, Haq denies he exposed himself, saying he only unzipped his pants.

I left the newsroom that night thinking that those who wanted to attribute any deeper meaning to the shooting must also find a way to fit the lewd conduct charge into the picture. To be absolutely clear: There was no doubt he was intent on killing Jews. It was not random in any way. He searched the Internet for a good target and traveled from Pasco to launch his attack. But was it a sick vein of hate in a deluded mind, or a political act? Did it matter?

Everything is politically loaded at a time like this. I had a message on my phone yesterday from a woman who said she hadn't read the Haq story in Sunday's paper, but she was disturbed the paper ran a photo of Haq's parents home in Pasco. She said it was irrelevant where Haq or his parents lived, saying in closing:

"To me you all just want to harbor some hate, some more hate, and that is just totally unnecessary. So you really need to check your Zionism. Thank you."

I should say now I don't have a solid answer for any of this. So be warned if anything short of ideological certainty puts you on edge. By Friday night, you could find commentators from all sides of the political spectrum engaged in the debate and showing none of the doubts that still burden me.

I was struck dumb in the immediate aftermath of the shooting by a post at Sound Politics that tried to draw a connection between the murder of Pamela Waechter and a headline on a letter to the editor in The Seattle Times. Michelle Malkin, one of the county's most popular bloggers, was on the story from the start with a running political commentary insisting it was an act of terrorism.

From Malkin's site I found one of the more disturbing posts on the shooting. Christopher Cantrill, a Seattle writer blogging at The American Thinker, suggests Seattle invited the killing.

You would expect that an angry American Muslim would choose Seattle to perform his outrage. Progressive Seattle legitimizes and condones the outrages of the self-described oppressed peoples. It rewards them with reduced responsibility for their actions. It encourages them to experience themselves not as equal citizens but as violated victims.

Cantrill also pointed out that the shooting happened in "the very heart of the congressional district of 'Baghdad' Jim McDermott." In his ham-handed condemnation, Cantrill rewards the victim culture by saying Seattle is socially engineered to welcome cold-blooded killers. Isn't Haq to blame, not Seattle?

This search for blame is not confined to the right. Daniel Kirkdorffer posted Friday night to connect the Seattle shooting with Israeli aggression, which he says has:

been way out of proportion to the transgression they claim to be avenging. ... Those in Lebanon that have lost loved ones and family, on either side, will grow up with hatred in their hearts, and in turn will seek a revenge of their own. They may be the future suicide bombers on Israeli buses, or shooters such as the one in Seattle today.

That is why an immediate cessation of hostilities must be brokered, and the USA needs to urge both sides to come to the table again. To be honest I think it has been left far too late now. The damage has already been done and the clock has been turned back 40 years. So many lives in Lebanon, Israel, and now in Seattle, have been lost as a result. When war is made to be the only solution there can be no winners.

It may be a stretch to even call Haq a Muslim. He was recently baptized. He declared himself a Muslin, I know. But is the bigger meaning muted by that bit of contradictory evidence?

With the news of the baptism, Darryl, filling in at horsesass.org, tried a turn at satire:

By now you have heard about the shooting of innocent people last Friday in downtown Seattle by a Christian terrorist. And what I want to know is what are we going to do about the rise of Christian terrorism in this country?

Do we need deeper meaning in every horrific event? Certainly the Old Media is always quick to pick up that thread as a follow-up to a disaster. Did the shooting expose some debate in Seattle about the Middle East that simmered unseen until Haq and his guns rolled into town? The PI points out that there have been numerous public demonstrations in Seattle about the Middle East, so I guess the answer is no.

I truthfully am not sure what to think. And this morning, as I sat trying to write this, I got a call from a woman in Brooklyn with a story to tell.

"I read your story," she said. "I see he is being treated as a lone gunman who is crazy. It is eerily similar to my son's case."

Devorah Halberstam's son, Ari, was murdered on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994 as he was driving with a van load of fellow Hasidic students. He was killed in a barrage of gunfire from Rashid Baz. In the days following the shooting, police said Baz, a Lebanese immigrant, acted alone and, according to the New York Times, "they had no evidence to connect Baz to terrorist groups or activities."

Baz's attorney said at the time that people were calling the killer a terrorist because "he is an Arab Muslim charged with a violent crime." At trial, jurors rejected Baz's insanity defense that had been based on a claim that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from growing up in Lebanon. His attorneys argued his disorder was triggered the day of the shooting because he was upset by the massacre of Muslim worshippers in Hebron, Israel, a few weeks earlier by a Jewish settler from Brooklyn.

Baz at first said it was a case of road rage, not politics.

But there were signs of politics, too. Police had a statement from a man who said Baz had said he was "very angry" about the Hebron killings and that he said, "We're supposed to kill all those Jews."

Law enforcement officials said Baz committed a hate crime, but not terrorism.

"The way they portrayed him in court, they made him like he was crazy and really he wasn't crazy," Devorah Halberstam told me. "We can't just hide it under the rug and have it go away; say this is one case, one crazy guy, a lone gunman. We have to protect each other, we are all Americans."

I told Halberstam that just as she called I was thinking about writing about the debate about whether Haq was a terrorist. She stopped me mid-word:

"It's not a debate," she said. She said people are too quick to label such shootings a hate crime. She says that hides the true nature of the crime. "It is terrorism, terrorism hiding behind something called a hate crime."

It took almost seven years, but Halberstam and others convinced the government that Baz was a terrorist. And that it mattered to label him as such.

According to a letter quoted on a memorial Web site to Ari Halberstam, the U.S. Department of Justice wrote Devorah Halberstam on Dec. 5, 2000, to say:

It is fair to conclude on the basis of this evidence that the murder of Ari and the shooting at the van were motivated in significant part by Baz's views and his desire to retaliate against Jewish people and, as such, were, in our view, the crimes of a terrorist as described by the state prosecutor at the time of Baz's sentence: All of these things culminated on the morning of March 1 with the defendant committing an act which, based on the psychiatric testimony that we've heard in this case, can only be considered as an act of terrorism.

A second letter assured her that the shooting would be included in all subsequent FBI summaries of terrorism incidents in the United States. You can see it there along with pipe bomb attacks by American Front skinheads, attempted fire bombings by the Mexican Revolutionary Movement and the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

Devorah Halberstam says it's important for journalists and others not to jump to conclusions about a killer's state of mind or motivation. That certainly should be heeded. As I was reading stories today about her son's murder, I found a piece by the late, great New York City columnist Murray Kempton, about how fast the police arrested Baz. And it tells me we shouldn't be too quick to assume that we know what a terrorist is, either.

Deeds like his always surprise us with the speed and the ease with which the doer or the doers get caught. We ought long ago to have ceased laboring over a puzzle with so little mystery in it. Terrorism is inspired rather less often by the service of a cause than by self-involvement in the ugliest of aesthetic pursuits. More frequently than not, the commanding impulse of the terrorist who kills the innocent is not to avenge the wronged but to reap sensual pleasures from killing the innocent.

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