What a difference a few hours can make

Just around the time I settled down to read the news this morning, the top story was a breaking report about an “active shooter” at Ohio State University. I quickly turned on the television, broke my post-election rule about avoiding cable news, and learned that the situation seemed to be under control and that, while there was still the possibility of other “shooters” at large, police were sounding the all clear. So I turned off the TV and went back to reading.

I just turned the TV on again and, as it turns out, there wasn’t a shooter at all, unless you count the campus police officer who put an end to the attack. Instead, the attacker, a Somali refugee, legal US resident, and (apparent) Ohio State student named Abdul Razak Ali Artan, drove his car onto a campus sidewalk, then got out of his car and began attacking people with a knife before he was shot and killed by the aforementioned campus police officer. This gets said during every shooting and/or terrorist attack, but it bears repeating: initial reporting will often be wrong and sometimes it will be wrong in very substantial ways.

Officials are giving a press conference about the attack as I’m writing this, and they just said that there were 11 people injured in the attack, which is up from the figure of 9 I’ve seen in online reporting. At least one of those injured is reportedly in critical condition.

Given who Artan was and what we’re already learning about him, the assumption will be that this was a terrorist attack, and I guess I’m no longer able to tell the difference between “terrorism” and “violent crime committed by a Muslim,” assuming there still is a difference. In an interview with an Ohio State campus newspaper and in a Facebook post made shortly before today’s attack, Artan expressed fear and frustration about the treatment of Muslims around the world and about his own experiences as a Muslim in America. If he pledged allegiance to ISIS or talked about striking America in vengeance for its policy in the Middle East or something like that, nobody has yet reported it.

Instead, what we know so far is that he was frightened and angry, and if the details were only slightly changed we might be talking about his anger that women wouldn’t date him, or his fear of African-Americans. In that hypothetical scenario, the underlying crime would be exactly the same but the perception of that crime would be totally different. Artan was 18, so maybe if his name were Alan Richard Anderson we’d be looking for family history of violent psychosis or some terrible childhood trauma to explain what caused him to commit this act. Again, the underlying crime would be the same but the perception would be totally different. Does that make any sense? Shouldn’t the criteria for deeming an act “terrorism” be a little more complex than determining the attacker’s religion? Obviously we’re going to learn more about Artan in the coming days and maybe it will turn out that he did have some connection to ISIS (or a similar group) and/or some sort of political motivation for what he did. But until that evidence is found, maybe we shouldn’t jump to call what he did terrorism.



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