By Patrick Blanchfield
Late last month, American officials announced the death of high-ranking Al Qaeda spokesperson and US citizen Adam Yahiye Gadahn, killed in a covert drone strike somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Born in Southern California in 1976, Gadahn hailed from a family of mixed Jewish, Christian, and self-described “agnostic” heritage, and was homeschooled as a Protestant, but he embraced Islam as a teenager, and by the late 1990s had moved to Pakistan and joined up with militants. Adopting the sobriquet “Azzam the American,” he became a leading figure in As Sahab, Al Qaeda’s media outlet, helping to produce videos, issuing communiqués, and editing its English-language magazine, Inspire. In one of his most notorious propaganda pieces, released in 2011, Gadahn called upon would-be American mujahadeen to go to a local gun show, buy weapons, and then carry out random, lone-wolf mass shootings as acts of terror. “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms,” Gadahn observed. “You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check, and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?”
On one level, Gadahn was exaggerating. The sale and purchase of fully automatic weapons are tightly controlled under the National Firearms Act, and require the procurement of special licenses, long waiting periods, and numerous fees. On another level, though, the threatening obviousness of his proposed strategy wasn’t far from the truth. In the vast majority of states, unlicensed person-to-person sales of both sidearms and long guns require neither background checks nor even an ID check, and “private sellers” looking to make such transactions are a common sight at gun shows. Likewise, you need only visit the right kind of gun show in the right locale to find parted kits to take your AR or AK up to full auto, kits that are legal to buy even though performing the conversion itself is a serious crime. Moreover, as we already know, you don’t need a fully automatic weapon or even an assault rifle to rack up casualties – before committing suicide, Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui murdered 32 people and shot 17 more, using only a pair of pistols. These caveats are all beside the point because, between Gadahn’s advocacy for such attacks in 2011 and his death in 2015, no mass shootings have occurred which law enforcement and mainstream media have together associated with so-called Islamist terrorism. Until now.
Sunday night, shots rang out in Garland, Texas, as two men, apparently wearing body armor and carrying what media report to have been assault rifles, attempted to gain entry to a “Draw Mohammed” event organized by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), an organization which also goes by the name “Stop Islamization of America.” Both men were killed by police outside the building; one officer was wounded in the exchange.
Details on the circumstances are still breaking fast, but preliminary reports identifying the shooters indicate that one had previously tangled with law enforcement over a failed attempt to travel to Somalia, allegedly “for the purpose of engaging in violent jihad”; another report describes this alleged shooter as a “wannabe jihadist.”
Of course, few have waited for even these preliminary reports to draw their predictable conclusions. Ever-provocative AFDI co-founder Pamela Geller has shown little hesitation before declaring that the Garland attack proves that “the war is here.” Shortly after the shooting, the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who was also a guest at the event, tweeted a renewed call to “Never Surrender to Terrorism!” Echoing Geller and Wilders on Monday morning, Fox and Friends pundit Steven Rogers speculated that this was an internationally orchestrated assault – and then alleged that leaders of groups like ISIS have been emboldened by urban unrest in places like Baltimore and, of course, by the lax leadership of President Barack Obama. Never mind that Adam Gadahn himself saw Obama as a “a devious, evasive and serpentine American president with a Muslim name.”
At this moment, with the investigation still in its infancy, the temptation to shoehorn this event into a pre-existing narrative frame is understandably hard to resist. One frame, which Aaron Bady at The New Inquiry expertly dismantles, plays into the hands of the AFDI by pre-emptively equating condemnation of Islamophobia and explicitly racist Muslim-baiting with the endorsement of terroristic violence – as though one could not simultaneously condemn both, or do so without also calling for “censorship” or reactionary policy measures.
Another frame we must resist relies on the immediate and reductive levying of the term “terrorism.” Whatever we may think of events in Garland, we must acknowledge that our national usage of this term when it comes to mass casualty attacks, whether realized or thwarted in their execution, is incredibly inconsistent. The White House has refused to call Palestinian-American Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hassan’s mass shooting at Fort Hood an act of terror, instead classifying it as an incident of “workplace violence,” even though Hassan killed thirteen people, wounded thirty-two more, corresponded with US-born Al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki before the shooting, and expressed a desire to be made a “citizen” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s so-called Islamic State before his execution. Meanwhile, Dzohkhar Tsarnaev, the young man, who, together with his older brother Tamerlan, carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing currently faces the death penalty. Prosecutors have characterized the younger Tsarnaev as a “terrorist” and would-be “terrorist hero” by prosecutors, even though his relationship with Tamerlan (the attack’s chief instigator) and family history suggest that their motivations were less about any coherent religious ideology and more akin to the psychologically damaged, generalized nihilism of school shooters like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. But the media generally does not refer those two young men as terrorists, even though they murdered 13 people and injured 24 more in their 1999 rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado, and despite the fact that their original grand plan involved highjacking a jetliner and crashing it into the New York City skyline. None of this, of course, is to deny that any of the violent acts listed above are horrifying and terroristic. But it certainly does seem that our willingness to apply the label of “terrorism” is not solely driven by the ideological motivations of those involved. In fact, it seems that our inconsistency in labeling some people who plan or carry out mass killings “terrorists” based upon their supposed ideology while considering others simply in terms of individual pathology has more to do with our unwillingness to acknowledge that most such shooters – who skew white and male – are themselves driven by motivations and agendas ranging from misogyny to frustrated privilege and more.
But the most important frame we need to resist is one that harkens back to this January’s attack by radicals on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which takes events in Garland as yet another iteration in a perennial showdown between “free speech” and “religious violence.” This is not just because, per Bady, this frame cedes grounds to Geller and Wilders and their reactionary compatriots. Nor still is it because, as Randy Potts’ description of the Garland gathering manifestly suggests, there’s a palpably religious feel to the pro-free speech advocacy. In addition to these reasons, I think it’s vital to reject the abstract free speech versus religious violence frame because of two difficult, repellant realities. First, because “Free Speech” in the United States already encompasses what in practically every other developed democracy on the planet would already be considered violence. Second, because, like most other ostensibly “universal” American rights, the ability to both call for and condemn religiously motivated violence is not an ability equally enjoyed by all – it is a privilege of certain specific groups.
To the first point: Garland is not Paris. Stated baldly, this is obvious, but consider: while racist, All-Muslims-Go-Home rallies do occur in France or Berlin, as they have in Texas, neither European capital allows armed civilians to harass protestors or to stand off with police. Texas, however, does. In the United States, the carrying and display of weapons is not only guaranteed on its own terms in many localities, but it is almost certainly protected “symbolic speech” under the First Amendment of the Constitution. To be very clear: in many parts of the United States, if you follow proper local ordinances, you and your friends can picket a mosque not just while carrying a sign saying “Muslims Are Going to Hell,” or “You Are Not Welcome in America,” but also while toting loaded assault weapons – and you are within your legal rights to do so. In other words, in the US, and unlike in any other Western Democracy, freedom of speech isn’t necessarily opposed to violence – instead, the right to free speech already and increasingly carries within it a license to flirt ever-more closely with threatening and enacting violence outright. The free speech landscape in the US thus encompasses not just the right to draw grotesque or blasphemous cartoons, but, many would say, to menace.
To the second point: the ability to tarry with violence as an exercise of “Free Speech” is not a universally enjoyed right. In its 1969 ruling in Brandenburg versus Ohio, the US Supreme Court ruled that members of the Ku Klux Klan – a self-avowedly Christian white supremacist paramilitary terrorist organization – could burn a cross while waving guns in the air and advocating for a violent “revengeance” [sic] against “niggers” and “Jews” and calling for an armed march on Washington. The standard the Court set in its ruling held that it was only illegal to speak in a way that directly constituted an incitement to “imminent lawless action” – anything short of that, and your speech is protected. In other words, in the US, and again, unlike in any other Western democracy, you can hold a rally where, provided you’re not violating local gun laws, you can hoist your rifle, proclaim that a time is coming soon when all Muslims should be liquidated and their mosques razed, and you’d still be within your First Amendment rights – provided that you don’t call for immediately burning any particular mosque, or directly incite the killing of particular Muslims.
I’ll leave it to your imagination to contemplate what might happen today if an Imam somewhere in the US organized an armed public event where he and his congregation behaved and spoke like Clarence Brandenburg did in Ohio back in the ‘60s – or like numerous well-armed Christian Identity or other extremist groups do today. But we don’t need to engage in hypotheticals when we can talk history. And the historical record is clear: in the US, some religious groups are allowed to arm themselves, to flirt ever closer with sectarian violence, and to finally pass over into enacting it. And they are allowed to claim Free Speech protection until they cross that line, and then permitted to disavow those who act out as individual, misguided, deranged loners. Meanwhile, other groups are marginalized, investigated, entrapped, judged guilty by association, and crushed by both governmental and private actors, whether those groups are armed or not, and even if their goals, language, and beliefs are ultimately benign. In this country, freedom of speech and the prerogative to both inflict and suffer persecutory violence have been, and remain, very much up for grabs – because as even Adam Gadahn knew, what circulates in our figurative collective marketplace isn’t just abstract ideas or beliefs, but some three-hundred-million very real guns and plenty of folks willing to self-righteously brandish and use them. I’m not sure who wins if we ignore the stakes and histories for the participants involved in these conflicts in favor of abstract oppositions between expression and censorship, offensiveness and violence, debate and threats, but one thing is for sure: we all lose.
Patrick Blanchfield is a doctoral candidate and Woodruff Scholar in Comparative Literature at Emory University, focusing in Comparative Literature and Religion, and a graduate of the Emory Psychoanalytic Institute. He writes about American gun culture, violence, and politics at http://carteblanchfield.com/.