War on Terrorism: Fixing the Score

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(Host) This past Fourth of July, there was a shooting at Los Angeles International Airport. Commentator Philip Baruth thinks it says a great deal about where we’ve come to since September 11.

(Baruth) In case you missed it – and as a major news story, it was surprisingly easy to miss – on the morning of this past Fourth of July, a man named Heshem Mohamed Ali Hadayet walked into the international terminal of Los Angeles Airport and killed two people. Hadayet didn’t walk just anywhere inside LAX, and he didn’t just kill any two people. He walked to the El Al counter, the Israeli airline, and he killed two people he had excellent reason to believe were Jews.

The man was very heavily armed: in addition to two handguns, a 45-caliber Glock, and a 9-millimeter, his pockets were stuffed with extra rounds of ammunition and a hunting knife.

None of these facts are in dispute. What is in dispute, and what was in dispute all the morning and the evening of the Fourth of July, was the label for this incident. Officials all through the day were batting down the idea that this was a terrorist incident.

A quick quote: “A senior Bush administration official says he can’t rule out terrorism – but that there’s no indication of it in this case.” I found that last phrase almost unbelievable: “no indication of it in this case.” Late in the day, White House officials were calling it a hate crime and arguing with Israeli officials, who immediately treated it as an act of terrorism.

Now, obviously, officials in California and in Washington were playing down the incident to avoid panic on the Fourth. And if by terrorism we mean that Ali Hadayet received a cell phone order from Osama Bin Laden, then no, this wasn’t terrorism. But if we mean that he deliberately targeted Jews in a crowded public place – an airport for God’s sake – on America’s day of Independence in order to produce terror – well, you see my point.

In my mind, Al Hadayet was essentially a cell of one, a frustrated man taking up the call to arms being issued every day by Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and others. Calling this a hate crime won’t erase the reality that the U.S. is more vulnerable to people like this, people with no previous ties to organized terror, than it is to those who attend CIA-photographed terrorism conventions overseas.

The morning of July 5, the New York tabloids had big, splashy headlines, all but bragging about a perfect Fourth of July and the inability of terrorists to lay a glove on the U.S. It was a game, in effect, and we wanted a shut-out.

And that’s the deeper point, maybe, that at some level there’s a creepy game-like aspect to the sort of terrorism we saw on 9/11, a game with the world watching. Planes flying into towers so very much like huge soccer goals, not once but twice, and people jumping off of couches in celebration in isolated rooms in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world. And that creepiness leads us into our own creepiness, denying self-evident realities for the sake of keeping the score where it’s comfortable for us.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont. His new book with Joe Citro is Vermont Air: Best of the Vermont Public Radio Commentaries.”

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