Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Swiftbombing Dilemma

Shortly after the failed bombing in Times Square my phone started ringing. Journalists across the nation asked for my opinion on the event. They needed it immediately. They needed it concise. They did not need a long, intellectualized sermon about how Muslims like me already have a rock-solid track-record when it comes to condemning terrorism.

What they needed was a sound-bite: “Muslims condemn terrorism.” or “We condemn terrorism whenever it happens, wherever it happens, whoever commits it.”*

So, without hesitation, I condemned terrorism again and again. The truth must be told over and over. Seeing people attempt to murder civilians sickens me. The leaps of logic needed to justify blowing-up people who are going to work or maybe trying to have a fun night out elude me. Anwar Awlaki’s “if you’re an American paying taxes you are a legitimate target” argument takes the whole death and taxes guarantee way further than I can stomach.

Recently, many Muslims have begun to question how we respond to crises such as the Christmas Day bomber and Faisal Shahzad. They say our record is clear. We should no longer hold press conferences in the wake of terror incidents to condemn the perpetrators.

They are right in that our record is clear. But they are wrong to think that we should stop proactively issuing condemnations.

I compare our situation to the dilemma John Kerry faced when he ran for president in 2004.

Kerry’s opponent’s hit him square between the eyes with a memorable talking-point: “You voted for the war, but against funding the troops.” It is short, snappy, seems to point to a flip-flop and, most priceless, can be said in mere seconds.

Kerry’s response was neither short, nor snappy. He may have had the best argument to dispel the apparent flip-flop. However, it took too long and it did not seem to address the emotional punch of apparently not supporting our troops. The response lost him votes.

So when a reporter calls me and asks for my response to an act of terror what I want to do is start in on the lecture: Look, since 9/11 I have condemned terror so many times that instead of my wife kicking me out of bed for snoring, I get kicked out for muttering condemnations in my sleep. When my neighbors greet me I respond by condemning terrorism. In 2006 after a congressional office asked me to organize a statement condemning the kidnapping of an American journalist in Iraq, I got on a plane and criticized the extremist’s actions from Baghdad. I have left my daughter in tears at home as I broke a promise to her so I could return to work and condemn Nidal Malik Hassan.

I could go on but you get the point. So does the reporter who does not have time to write about all that.

What could end up appearing in the news later that night is the less than inspiring, “Saylor noted that Muslims feel they have condemned terrorism already and are not going to repeat this condemnation today.”

Obviously that is not going to work.

Muslims are being hit square between the eyes with something more powerful than a talking point: images of some psycho claiming our faith motivated him or her to commit some unconscionable atrocity.

If I do not have a short, snappy, mere seconds of a response the result could be the loss of more than votes. I am going to be dumping fuel on the problem. It is a sin in my book to try to provide intellectual analysis in the immediate wake of a near massacre. Emotions are too high and your words must speak to those emotions. The best argument will get buried under the adrenaline.

So we are stuck, swiftbombed as it were. Those who argue that we have a clear track-record of condemning terrorism are right, but when they argue that we should move on and stop issuing the condemnation they have failed to comprehend John Kerry’s lesson.

Following the Times Square attack, I got an e-mail from a fair-minded person who asked why we Muslims did not condemn terrorism.

I responded with my usual lengthy list of links to such condemnations and, in part, wrote this:

“It is true that such condemnations often do not reach the general public…Short of an advertising campaign that is beyond the financial reach of our community organizations, we have been unable to come up with a solution to the problem of our condemnations and opposition to extremists not reaching everyone. Always welcome your thoughts on the subject.”

Until someone solves that problem, I will continue to repeating my sincere condemnations of terror.
*Personally, I always thought this line was pretty comprehensive and hard to misinterpret. However, in some circles it gets me accused of being a HAMAS supporter. Another pitfall we Muslims face: you can universally condemn terrorism but if you don’t do it exactly the way some agenda driven people think you should, well that must mean you are a supporter. Foolish.