Sanitizing terror, part II: Backlash mounting over refusal to call OKC beheading what it is

It’s becoming a disturbing trend.

For months, Ali Muhammad Brown, a man described as a devout Muslim convert, engaged in what prosecutors allege was a “bloody crusade” aimed at avenging the deaths of Muslims killed by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. From Seattle, Washington to West Orange, New Jersey, Brown left four bodies in his wake. But the national press refused to report on his case until weeks after he was indicted. Almost none outside local media outlets in Seattle noted that Brown had intentionally targeted gay men is his campaign of vengeance.

A Seattle-based Fox affiliate called Brown a “radical jihadist,” but few other press outlets followed their lead. Perhaps because Brown was not receiving coded transmissions from Pakistani handlers, some apparently determined that his actions should not be considered terrorism. One has to wonder whether the members of Seattle’s gay community who use the social media app Brown utilized to target his victims felt terrorized. Whether we call it terrorism or not, the effect of Brown’s spree was to instill fear and to force those who survived his attacks to rethink their routines.

This familiar pattern is happening again, now in Oklahoma City. On Friday, what was reportedly a disgruntled former employee of a food processing facility decided to take his frustrations out on his coworkers. He killed one, according to initial reports, and wounded another before being incapacitated by the gun-carrying company’s owner.

But as more details emerged, the more an ominous pattern began to emerge. Some have begun to determine that they are again being lied to in service to the ignoble mission of defining terrorism down.

The suspect, Alton Nolen, had beheaded his first victim – the jihadist calling card which has become a common element of Islamist attacks in the United Kingdom, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Algeria. He was reportedly a recent convert to Islam, and had been proselytizing in his place of work for some time. Nolen’s unsuccessful attempts to convert his coworkers were reportedly part of the reason for his dismissal.

During the attack, local outlets reported that Nolen was allegedly shouting Islamic phrases, similar to those which Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan shouted during his 2009 rampage. What’s more, Nolen’s Facebook page contained favorable images of Osama bin Laden and the prominent ISIS commander, Omar al-Shishani. His social media posts also included an image depicting an ISIS beheading.

“But the FBI, which is assisting in the investigation, has so far found no links to terrorism, the officials said,” The Washington Post reported. “There was also no indication that Nolen was copying the beheadings of journalists in Syria by the Islamic State, the officials said, adding that they are treating this as an incident of workplace violence.”

Nolen may not have been part of an ISIS cell lying in wait for the precise moment to strike, but he was clearly a sympathizer who was inspired by the actions of Islamic fundamentalist militants and duplicated them. While that may not be an act of war, it does have the effect of terrorizing the public. While it is debatable as to whether Nolen engaged in terrorism by definition, calling this an act of random workplace violence is simply misleading.

What’s more, the effort to reframe Nolen’s actions is prompting a deserved backlash:

“Workplace violence. Really?” an incredulous Joe Scarborough exclaimed on Monday. “Despite the fact the attacker’s Facebook page had pictures of Osama bin Laden, let’s see, the Taliban, gruesome beheadings by ISIS. Pictures celebrating the destruction of the Twin Towers, and his promise that America would go up in flames. And, also, his declaration that, quote, Islamic terrorists behead their victims because the precedent was bestowed by their prophet.”

“How stupid does the FBI really think we are?” he added. “And who exactly are they afraid of offending? ISIS?”

He noted that “political correctness,” the same kind which led the press to gloss over the actions of Ali Muhammad Brown, has led federal investigators to sanitize Alton Nolen’s acts of jihadist violence.

No one wants to spread undue panic, but the press and the federal government are sacrificing their credibility to the goal of maintaining calm. By refusing to call violence inspired by Islamic jihad what it is, these institutions are losing the public’s trust.