The terrorist truck attack in Manhattan by an Uzbekistan national, inspired by ISIS propaganda, was the ostensible subject of Max Fisher and Amanda Taub’s “The Interpreter” column in Thursday’s New York Times. But it was more of an exercise in trying to weaken the link between “terrorism” and radical Islam. The authors gain revealed their liberal priorities by fretting over even labeling such attacks by radical Islamists as terrorism: “This Time Was Terror. What About Las Vegas?” And a front-page story downplayed, in typical Times fashion, the Islamic connection, asserting “there is no single reason” someone would commit such an act, blaming “monsters inside” him.
Hours after a truck plowed along a Manhattan bike path on Tuesday, Americans returned to a debate that has become a vessel for some of the most contentious questions dividing an increasingly polarized society: When is an attack terrorism?
A month ago, when a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas, killing dozens and wounding hundreds, the attack was not broadly branded an act of terrorism. But that label was immediately attached to the attack on Tuesday that killed eight people, setting off another round of a fierce national debate.
On the surface, this could be considered a straightforward question of motive. Terrorism is defined as an attack on civilians meant to frighten a larger community for political purposes.
The downplaying of radical Islam began in paragraph four, with the suggestion that Saipov was merely a “disturbed loner”
But the new generation of Islamist terrorism, conducted by individuals citing far-off inspiration, has blurred the distinctions between terrorist and disturbed loner. So have recent mass shooters who show signs of both mental illness and an attachment to vague ideological causes.
The Las Vegas attack, for some Americans, typically those on the left, represented the terrorism of unchecked gun laws.
Classifying the Las Vegas attack as terrorism might mean classifying guns as national threats requiring a response. The right would see this as an attempt to tar all gun owners and conservatives.
Attacks like the one in New York, led by a man from Uzbekistan who shouted “Allahu akbar,” are seen by many on the right as stemming from the wider threat of uncontrolled Muslim immigration. If it is an act of terrorism, as Mayor Bill de Blasio and others have defined it, then the attacker cannot be dismissed as a disturbed loner.
More than 16 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, many Americans, particularly on the left, are questioning the readiness with which lone Muslims are defined as terrorists while lone non-Muslims are deemed “mass shooters.”
Even if the label fits in individual cases, they say, the inconsistency suggests a tendency to see Muslims as part of a hostile fifth column and white male killers as exceptions.
Those on the left, particularly those concerned about rising attacks on Muslims, worry about an attempt to further marginalize Muslim Americans at a moment when they are especially vulnerable.
“Man screams ‘Allahu Akbar’ & kills people. Media: Terrorism!” Nathan Lean, the author of a book on Islamophobia, wrote on Twitter. “White guy slays 56 in Las Vegas with battle-ready weapons. Media: Crickets.”
The argument expressed growing worries on the left that the word “terrorism” had become racially and religiously charged, used predominantly to describe attacks by Muslims on non-Muslims.
Also on Thursday, a lead story, “‘Monsters Inside’ a Wanderer,” also downplayed, in typicalNew York Times fashion, any Islam connection. The online headline: “Finding a Rootless Life in U.S., Sayfullo Saipov Turned to Radicalism.”
The blurb on the paper’s front website didn’t mention Islam, even though the attacker yelled “Allahu Akbar” during his rampage: “Mr. Saipov, who is charged in the attack, came to the United States in 2010. But a life of disappointments awakened ‘monsters inside.’” So it was America’s fault?
Sayfullo Saipov left home in 2010, just after he celebrated his 22nd birthday and won the lottery to come to America. He never looked back, never again saw his hometown of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, and never stopped moving.
And on Tuesday, Mr. Saipov, now 29, who had spent so many hours on the road by himself, who a former friend said had “monsters inside,” decided to drive one last truck, this one a Home Depot rental, down a crowded bike path on the West Side of Manhattan, the authorities said. Eight people died.
The reporters worked hard to downplay radical Islam as the instigator of the attack:
As with any attack like this, there is no single reason Mr. Saipov reportedly decided to kill innocents, mostly tourists enjoying a blustery fall day, 56 degrees with blue skies. He had come to the United States as a moderate Muslim with dreams of making it. He married another Uzbek immigrant and fathered three children. But life did not work out the way Mr. Saipov had wanted. He could not find a job in the hotel business, in which he had worked back home. He developed a violent temper. He lost jobs.An imam in Florida worried that Mr. Saipov increasingly misinterpreted Islam.
“I used to tell him: ‘Hey, you are too much emotional. Read books more. Learn your religion first,’” said Abdul, the imam, who did not want his last name used because he feared reprisals. “He did not learn religion properly. That’s the main disease in the Muslim community.”
He wasn’t exactly an extremist. Mr. Saipov liked fancy clothes, a vanity frowned on in conservative Islamic circles. He cursed as if he couldn’t help it. He routinely showed up late for Friday Prayer at the Islamic Society of Akron and Kent. He displayed only rudimentary knowledge of the Quran.