Jihad Jane is Media Catnip

March 25, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Dan Gardner, CanWest News Services

The name Colleen LaRose may not be world famous but the pseudonym LaRose allegedly used in an Internet-based terrorist plot certainly is. A Google search of Jihad Jane delivers 1,760,000 hits.

What makes that number especially impressive is that it was only last week that American prosecutors announced LaRose invariably described as a green-eyed blonde had been charged with conspiring to kill a Swedish cartoonist. To go from the obscurity to worldwide notoriety is no small feat. And Jihad Jane did it without actually committing a major act of terrorism. Or a minor act of terrorism. She did it, allegedly, by discussing a single murder.

Now contrast that with Andrew Joseph Stack. If you follow the news closely, the name probably rings a bell. He is the Texas man who became so enraged with the IRS and the American government that he climbed into the cockpit of his plane, flew to the IRS building in Austin, and nosedived. The building was mauled but, miraculously, only one person died along with Stack.

That was on Feb. 18. A Google search of Stacks name almost a month later came up with around 430,000 hits.

One person crashes a plane into a building in an attempt to commit mass slaughter and his crime gets some modest attention. Another expresses an intention to kill someone, is arrested, and gets vastly more reporting and discussion. That’s quite a discrepancy.

Is it because LaRose’s case is so much more important? Prosecutors suggested so. The arrest underscores the evolving nature of the threat we face, a U.S. Justice department official said. It shatters any lingering thought that we can spot a terrorist based on appearance, the chief prosecutor added.

But is that remotely true? Richard Reid, the bumbling shoe bomber, is half English and half Jamaican. John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, is a Caucasian Californian. So is Adam Gadahn, a longtime al-Qaeda spokesman who changed his name from Adam Pearlman.

So what exactly is new about Jihad Jane? That she’s a woman prepared to murder in the name of Islam? There are plenty of those, unfortunately. Thats shes blonde? Well, yes. That’s different. But somehow I don’t think her arrest means terrorists of the future will look like Jan Brady.

So if its not the intrinsic importance of the case that explains why Jihad Jane is walloping Joseph Stack on Google, what does? One might think its the fact that LaRoses views are shared by many others and so she represents something bigger than the crime she is alleged to have committed. Andrew Joseph Stack was just some nut with a grudge and a plane.

But that doesn’t work either. Stack left a suicide note which was essentially a long anti-government tirade that bore a striking similarity to warnings in a Department of Homeland Security report issued in 2009. Domestic anti-government extremism was on the rise, the report noted, and there were growing suggestions it could turn violent. The situation was similar to that of the early 1990s, the report concluded, when right-wing extremism culminated in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more.

In the months and years after the Oklahoma City bombing, an immense amount of attention was paid to anti-government militias and other extremists. The Sept. 11 attacks erased that threat and replaced it with that of Islamist terrorism, but the reality on the ground didn’t change a great deal. It just wasn’t talked about. It still isn’t.

And that, I think, is what explains why Jihad Jane is winning the battle of Google.

The human brain is compulsive about making sense of things. It orders, categorizes, and systematizes. And once it thinks it decides something is settled, it works hard to keep it settled: It eagerly grabs onto anything that supports the existing understanding while avoiding, or waving off, anything that contradicts that understanding. Psychologists call this confirmation bias.

Now, what is terrorism? Mention that word and certain images come to mind, certain ideas and beliefs. That is the settled understanding of what terrorism is and who terrorists are.

In 1995, the horror in Oklahoma City shattered that understanding and created something new. After Oklahoma City, terrorism was about right-wing crazies. And in the years that followed, media reporting bolstered that understanding by seeking any tidbit of information, no matter how small, that supported it.

But then came Sept. 11, 2001, and the frame changed again. Terrorism was about Islamic religious fanatics.

If Joseph Stack had done exactly what he did for the same reason in 1996, the news coverage would have been massive and everyone in the world would know his name. But he did it in 2010, when he and his motives didn’t fit the popular narrative of what terrorism is.

But Jihad Jane fit the frame. Better still, she was superficially different. Thus, her story confirmed our fundamental beliefs about what terrorism is while it simultaneously delivered a delightful sprinkle of novelty catnip for the media. And that combination just happens to be a perfect formula for grabbing popular attention.

This is of more than theoretical interest, of course. Media coverage, and popular attention, is constantly distorted by the interaction of underlying assumptions and psychology. What we hear, read, and talk about is not a complete and objective reflection of reality.

Put it like that and anyone would say, well, no kidding. But ask people why they believe something to be true and, often as not, youll hear something like, its happening all the time. Just look at the news. See the problem?

As always, a little more skepticism is in order.

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The CMU Black Hole

August 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Muslims Isolated in special US prisons

By Karin Friedemann, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

polit prisoners Not much is known about the new federal prisons called Communications Management Units (CMUs), that house primarily Muslims and political activists, except that they are located in Terre Haute, Indiana and Marion, Illinois. Although the US government refuses to disclose the list of prisoners to the public, inmates include Enaam Arnaout, founder of Islamic charity Benevolence International Foundation, Dr. Rafil Dhafir, physician and founder of Iraqi charity Help the Needy, Ghassan Elashi, founder of Holy Land Foundation and CAIR Dallas, Randall Royer, Muslim civil rights activist, Yassin Aref, imam and Kurdish refugee, Sabri Benkahla, an American who was abducted the day before his wedding while studying in Saudi Arabia, and John Walker Lindh, an American convert to Islam who was captured in Afghanistan, plus some non-Muslim political activists. Most of these prisoners were falsely accused of terrorist offenses and then imprisoned for lesser charges but given sentences meant for serious terrorism-related crimes.

Carmen Hernandez, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said, “The primary problem with the opening of (the CMU) is that no one knows the criteria used to send the person imprisoned to that unit.” What the prisoners have in common is that they were well disciplined, studious, and often religious compared to those in the general prison population, they maintain strong commitments to various causes, and for some reason the government wants to keep them separate, to restrict their communication with the outside world.

Prison officials claim, “By concentrating resources in this fashion, it will greatly enhance the agency’s capabilities for language translation, content analysis and intelligence sharing.”

Attorney Paul Hetznecker stated, “These Communication Management Units are an expansion of a continued war on dissent in this country… of using that word “terrorism” to push a political agenda and to really dominate and to control–attempt to control these social movements.”

Andy Stepanian, an animal rights activist who is the first to be released from a CMU, called it “a prison within the actual prison.” He said that the prisoners “are not there because they harmed anyone. They’re not there because they approach anything that most reasonable people would consider even close to being terrorism.”

He further stated, “From what I observed, about 70 percent of the men that were there were Muslim and had questionable cases that were labeled as either extremist or terrorist cases. But when I grew to meet them, I realized that the cases were, in fact, very different…  what it appears to be is that they don’t want people that are either considered to be fundamentalist in Islam or more devout than your average American in Islam to be circulating amidst the regular prison populace in the Bureau of Prisons. Whatever their objective in doing so, I mean, that would have to come from the Bureau of Prisons. But one can surmise it’s because they don’t want the spread of Islam in the prisons or that they’re trying to silence communications from these individuals, because perhaps their cases are in question themselves, and they don’t want to allow them access to the media.”

He concluded, “At the end of this prison sentence, … I’ll look back on the fact that I had a tremendous opportunity to meet people from different cultures, to be exposed to the Islamic world and understand that it’s not something to be feared, it’s not something to be vilified.”

Daniel McGowan, a non-Muslim political activist in “Little Guantanamo” wrote: “The most painful aspect of this unit, to me, is how the CMU restricts my contact with the world beyond these walls. It is difficult for those who have not known prison to understand what a lifeline contact with our family and friends is to us. It is our link to the world — and our future (for those of us who are fortunate enough to have release dates).”

The US houses 2.3 million domestic prisoners. Conditions are far worse in some of the other prisons. Within the CMU, Muslim prisoners are at least safe from violence.

However, the discrimination against prisoners at CMUs, in addition to the severe limitations on visits, phone calls and letters, includes a lack of access to vocational training and paying jobs that are available to other prisoners. More than half of the men face deportation after their release, and the difficulty in obtaining law books makes it difficult to prepare for an immigration hearing.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently filed lawsuits on behalf of several prisoners challenging the CMUs’ “violation of federal laws requiring public scrutiny” as well as the prison’s restrictions of Islamic group prayer. This legal struggle must be supported by increased activism on the outside to demand the release of the innocent either falsely convicted or intimidated into pleading guilty to bogus charges.

Karin Friedemann is a Boston-based writer on Middle East affairs and US politics. She is Director of the Division on Muslim Civil Rights and Liberties for the National Association of Muslim American Women.

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