The odd tale of Muslim violence that none dared call by its name

It seems a straightforward enough of a story, and one that has become lamentably familiar to observers of current affairs. A Detroit man, a self-described Muslim, walked up to a group of individuals at a bus stop and asked them if they, too, observe the Islamic faith. When they replied that they did not, he stabbed them multiple times. It seems prima facie about as cut-and-dried an incident of radical Islamic extremist violence as you can get unless you work in America’s newsrooms apparently.

For America’s editors, however, relating this story in a manner that they subjectively determined to be responsible enough proved vexing. Their readers cannot be trusted not to draw the conclusion that the world is facing an epidemic of Islamic violence, particularly given the mounting empirical evidence that makes this condition plain. So, for many media outlets, an agonizing and public display over how to present this story unfolded yesterday.

“A Detroit man stabbed two people at a suburban bus stop after asking his victims whether or not they were Muslim, according to police,” read the lede in The Washington Post’s report on this incident. “Federal authorities are now looking at the case as a potential hate crime, police said on Tuesday.”

This paragraph greeted the reader who clicked through to the headline, “Police: Man stabs two after asking if they are Muslim.”

For the casual reader, the implication is clear: The backlash against Muslims that so many eagerly anticipate but which never seems to materialize is finally upon us. An anti-Islamic zealot executed attacks on harmless mass transit riders. Panic is the only appropriate response.

Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth. The outraged response from social media users to this misleading report forced The Post and this article’s author, Abby Ohlheiser, to amend the headline so as to more accurately reflect what had actually happened. “Police: Muslim man stabs two after discussion about religious beliefs.”

Yes, of course. An edifying and enlightening theological debate was cut short when one of the interchange’s participants got a little stabby. It could happen to anyone.

Suggesting that this attack was inspired by some form of discussion is like claiming the 21 Copts beheaded by ISIS militants in Egypt were simply on the losing end of an ecumenical colloquium. It does not explain or convey the details of what occurred in Detroit; it obscures them and misleads the reader, which was a result that seems deliberate.

Finally, after several hours, The Post settled on a final version of this story’s headline. “Police: Man stabs two after asking about religious beliefs.” Because the real problem here was identifying that there was a Muslim involved in this altercation at all. That’s what really needed to be addressed.

At this point, it seems that The Post simply gave up on trying to fix their reportage on a story that they so inexplicably fumbled. It is not, however, as though The Post was alone in misreporting this event.

“Religious hate suspected in Southfield bus stop stabbings,” reads the most recent version of a headline gracing a Detroit Free-Press dispatch on this incident. The copy that accompanied the story did accurately convey the details of this episode. Nevertheless, many social media users assumed from this headline (and presumably The Post’s myriad efforts) that what had occurred in Detroit was an anti-Muslim hate crime.

“Many social-media users spreading a Detroit Free-Press version of the story Tuesday misinterpreted the story to mean the suspect was trying to attack Muslims,” The Los Angeles Times reported.

This was so utterly irresponsible that it nearly defies explanation. It reflects a judgment call made by a number of editors across the country, and that judgment was simple: You cannot be trusted with these facts, lest you draw some inconvenient conclusions about the threat posed by Muslim violence.

That reflex is even odder considering how unreflective the attacker was of the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorists. This attacker was discovered to have marijuana on him by police (all smoking, let alone drug use, is prohibited for devout Muslims), and was said by officers to be “somewhat incoherent” upon his capture. This attack was more likely the act of a mentally disturbed individual than a self-radicalized, lone wolf, ISIS sympathizer. But that makes the media’s reaction to this story all the more unfathomable.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from this episode, in fact, is that the nation’s editors are more afraid of you, dear reader, than they are of Islamist extremists.

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