Mohamed Osman Mohamud, whom I will call the Christmas Tree Bomber, has just done more to hurt Somali refugees, asylees and naturalized Americans than any other Somali ever has, if in fact he is guilty of the crime with which he's charged. The 19-year-old Oregon State University student was arrested for allegedly attempting to blow up a van full of explosives at the tree lighting ceremony in Pioneer Square, the living room of my town, Portland, Oregon.
Assume with me for a minute that these charges are true--after all, Somalis charged with explosives by the FBI in Portland have a poor track record of adhering to the truth. Sheik Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye was imprisoned under completely bogus charges in 2002 in Portland. He was the imam of the Islamic Center and was clearly targeted first and an effort to establish terrorist connections came second. He was arrested in a grand media event at the Portland airport with four of his children and headlines that the security dogs had identified explosives in his luggage. That was completely false. In the end, Kariye was convicted on a plea bargain of committing some violation of Social Security laws regarding his card, completely unrelated to terrorism, to Islam, to his naturalized citizen status or anything to do with the FBI's spectacularly failed fishing expedition. So the default setting when the FBI charges an Oregonian Somali with terrorism is heavy skepticism. Or at least that should be the response. But let's entertain the possibility that this young Somali American has intended to really slaughter innocent civilians at a nonmilitary target in a town with a relatively low military presence and one that has voted for peace again and again--we elect some of the most peace-oriented people to represent us. If this young guy really planned and attempted to kill us, what does he want?
If he did this, did this young man think through the effects this will have upon other Somalis? Does he think life will be better for Somali children in the US now? Did he contemplate how his act of truly lowlife bloodthirstiness will affect the attitudes of Portlanders, of Oregonians, and of US citizens in general? Does he feel that future generations of Somalis will gain from this? Does he believe that Islam will be a vindicated and respected religion because it was used to justify slaughtering people from a fairly secular city who just got together to watch a Christmas tree being lighted? Was he thinking that killing children--and the FBI claims he specifically said he was aware that he would kill many children and was eager to do this act--was he believing that this would be some act of a good Muslim, a defensive act to help rebuff American attacks on Muslims in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq? Did he suppose he would honor Allah or his faith? Is his thinking like other Somalis, many of whom were set into motion toward jihad when Clinton sent in troops with the UN in 1993? Was he affected by the mass death of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan by US bombs (civilian victims of US bombs in each of those countries outnumbered the civilians murdered on 9.11.01 in the US)?
What does he see in our culture that causes him to hate so mercilessly, if in fact he has done this? Could it be the ubiquitous fawning in our culture over the troops who are in Afghanistan, Iraq or other places, troops who are killing civilians in several Muslim countries even as I write this? Gauzy images of uniformed US military are all over the media, in the theaters, on many television commericials, on the lips of the president and many other officials (well, the lips of the president are a bit under attack themselves at this moment, but you get my drift). We don't merely valorize the US troops, we sacralize them and their activities by the images of square-jawed, ramrod-straight, devoted-to-duty warriors against a rippling American flag backdrop. Someone who was born Muslim in a poor country can be forgiven, I think, for being hurt at the idea that these US troops, with the largest military budget the world has ever seen, with the most devastating technology employed to kill in their hands--or flying overhead as armed drone aircraft and then shot by gunners thousands of miles away--that these troops are viewed as our saviors. These troops who are charged every now and then with raping young Muslim girls, killing old Muslim men, and mostly getting off, these troops are all lumped together as untouchable sacred defenders. Pictured are two UN peacekeepers on camera, swinging a Somali girl over a fire. How can this image be so viral in the Muslim world and so unknown to the average US citizen?
Now put a young Somali into two maytags of influence.
One, outraged Muslims who point to the dead children of dead Taliban, murdered by a missile from far above, guilty of being a child of a person who believes he is fighting invaders from yet another empire. The US has now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviets were. We are occupying a Muslim country long after deposing the leadership who offended us by harboring bin Laden. We are now creating a culture of resistance in Afghanistan as the memory of sheltering bin Laden gives way to the more recent memory of US troops coming in hot and heavy to villages. This Somali man might well be reinforced constantly by this influence toward jihad.
Two, the uncritical and sacralizing relationship between the US military and our civilian culture. When the anti-Islamic media machine goes into gear (as it is right now in the aftermath of this event), they will be claiming that there are few good Muslims because those who claim to be moderate don't condemn the jihadis. That is false--I've read literally hundreds of such condemnations--but to the average American it seems true. They consume Fox News and they are told this lie incessantly, they then fail to check other sources and that lie stands uncorrected by reality. Put that shoe on the other foot. Where are the moderate members of the US military, condemning drone attacks that kill children, condemning the killing of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and soon in Yeman and Somalia? Mohamed Osman Mohamud must surely wonder how much the lives of Muslims are worth when so many civilians can get killed by US troops and there is no mass outrage trying to end the occupations.
Does this justify the alleged crimes of Mohamed Osman Mohamud? Not to me, not to more than 99.9 percent of Americans, I'll wager. But do the crimes of bin Laden justify killing children--"collateral damage"--in Muslim countries? I'll also wager that many reasonable Muslims wonder when US citizens, US civilians, are going to condemn and stop paying for and voting for such violence. Von Clausewitz called it total war, in which civilians are seen as a part of the warmaking effort of the enemy and are thus legitimately targeted. International law has repudiated that doctrine, but we see it creeping back on all sides.
Do I want Mohamed Osman Mohamud locked up? Yes. Possibly for life, depending on how he can be rehabilitated. But then I want George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld locked up with the same conditions. They actually achieved their mass murder. Mohamed Osman Mohamud only thought he was going to, if in fact he did what the FBI accuses him of doing.
It is time to stop war and to stop worshipping warriors of all stripes, colors, religions, identities, ideologies and national origins. Mohamed Osman Mohamud might have thought he was acting to revenge his ancestors but what he was doing, if he did it, was to hurt Somali and Muslim children, just as our US troops are not making us more secure by continuing these wars, which instead are going to come home more and more the longer we allow it to continue, as we see right now, today. Liberating and securitizing our societies will either be done with nonviolence and in common or it will fail and fail and fail.