The Meaning of Faisal 'Rorschach' Shahzad

It is fascinating to me how both liberals and conservatives are using the story of Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber (as well as the story of Nidal Malik Hassan, the Ft. Hood shooter, among others), as a kind of springboard to launch into all sorts of extraneous and sometimes comical disquisitions about the Larger Meaning of his (thankfully incompetent) act. On the left, the news that Shahzad's Connecticut home was in foreclosure has led at least a couple of commentators to argue that the country's financial crisis, and not, say, jihadist ideology, is at the root of Shahzad's desire to commit murder in Times Square. On the right, Shahzad's alleged act has become proof (not that certain commentators needed proof) that no Muslim in America can be trusted.

The weirdest commentary I've seen on the left so far has come from Ezra Klein, who wrote that Shahzad's story is "a reminder that foreclosures generate an enormous amount of misery and anxiety and depression that can tip people into all sorts of dangerous behaviors that don't make headlines but do ruin lives. And for all that we've done to save the financial sector, we've not done nearly enough to help struggling homeowners."

I agree, of course, that we have not done nearly enough to help struggling homeowners. But I would also point out that of the millions of Americans in foreclosure, exactly one has been accused of trying to blow up Times Square. And the fact that this particular person is a Muslim from Pakistan strikes me as not entirely irrelevant.

Then there are those commentators on the left who are so eager to absolve Muslims of the sin of terrorism that they try to wish their innocence into reality: Contessa Brewer, speaking on MSNBC, said that "there was part of me that was hoping this was not going to be anybody with ties to any kind of Islamic country because there are a lot of people who want to use this terrorist intent to justify writing off people who believe in a certain way or come from certain countries or whose skin color is a certain way. I mean they use it as justification for really outdated bigotry."

And then there is Robert Dreyfuss, in the Nation, who pulled a reverse-Emerson (Steven Emerson, a Muslim terror-tracker, famously, and prematurely, blamed Middle Eastern terrorists for the Oklahoma City bombing). Dreyfuss wrote that "it seems far more likely to me that the perpetrator of the bungled Times Square bomb plot was either a lone nut job or a member of some squirrely branch of the Tea Party, anti-government far right. Which actually exists in Connecticut, where, it seems, the car's license plates were stolen."

On the right, of course, commentators are arguing that Shahzad's alleged act of terrorism means that no Muslim in America can be fully trusted (the blogger Pamela Geller argues that "stealth jihadists" have even infiltrated Mayor Bloomberg's administration), and that Shahzad's alleged support for the Democratic Party suggests that Democrats are not only soft on terrorism, but that they harbor actual terrorists.

In fact, the meaning of Shahzad's alleged terrorist attempt is fairly limited: There are more than five million Muslims in America; a tiny handful of them have committed, or have tried to commit, terror attacks in recent years. Many more Muslims serve faithfully in the United States military than serve jihadist ideology. Still, ignoring the infiltration by jihadist ideologues of certain marginal circles in Muslim America serves no purpose, either, except to advance the argument that the Tea Party is worse than al Qaeda, which, I fear, is what some on the left actually believe. Blaming Islam, or the mass of law-abiding American Muslims, for the acts of men like Faisal Shahzad will only lead to segregation, prejudice, and radicalization; ignoring the problem entirely will lead to more terror attacks.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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