Despite a long career of lampooning human folly, it has only been in recent years that I have fully appreciated the strong predilection among Homo sapiens to willingly and fervently believe in preposterous ideas. The shooting at the Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, provided a full display of this phenomenon.
The incident was so rich in headlong stupidity that I need to address it from two angles. Today, it’s the idiots with guns who ended up dead before they could do much harm. Tomorrow, I’ll look at the paranoid style in American politics that has turned into a lucrative business for a few and a constant cause of panic and outrage for many.
Nadir Soofi and Elton Simpson were the two roommates who decided to load up a car with guns, drive from their home in Phoenix and head to Garland, where they apparently intended to kill as many people as they could inside the meeting room where offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad were on display. Upon arrival, they jumped from the car with assault rifles blazing. A mere 15 seconds later, they were dead, taken down by a cop with a handgun.
Soofi, son of a Pakistani dad and an American mom, had an 8-year-old son of his own that he is said to have adored. Simpson, a devout Muslim like Soofi, was described by a friend as “a gentle person” with a good attitude and demeanor. Everybody in their circle of family and friends claims to be shocked that the pair would run off on this short-lived jihad. What got into their heads?
Well, from what has been reported about Simpson’s past, he had spent years filling his brain with radical Islamist propaganda. He ended up on a federal no-fly list when he lied to the FBI about his plans to go to Somalia and engage in “violent jihad.” Soofi seems to have had some pretty strong opinions about Middle East politics as well, and the speculation is that Simpson convinced him it was time for them both to become soldiers for their God.
Just moments before they started shooting, Simpson sent out a tweet with the hashtag #texasattack that read, “May Allah accept us as Mujahideen.” The tweet also indicated allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. ISIS was quick to claim them as its own in a radio broadcast following the attack, but Soofi and Simpson were something far less than hardened, trained terrorists. They were just two fools with minds filled with religious fantasies.
They are reminiscent of two other young men who did a lot more harm — Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bombers. They, too, flipped from being fairly normal American teenagers to merciless murderers because they bought into a fanatical version of reality. Suddenly, it became OK in their minds to kill innocent people to avenge some real or imagined slight against their belief system.
And maybe that’s the core of the problem: belief systems. Just because a person believes something with all his heart and soul, that fervency does not make it true. Humans have been dreaming up belief systems since they stumbled out of caves and began gathering in tribes. Those tribes each came up with their own fantastical explanations for natural phenomena. They dreamed up gods and demons and spirits in the woods and the sky. When they encountered other tribes, they sometimes adopted the newcomers' beliefs or they killed them to impose their own. Over time, the systems got more elaborate and the prevailing tribes grew enormous, but that did not make the beliefs any more real — only more powerful.
One of those belief systems, Islam, is plagued by an especially vicious, violent cohort. Perversely, because it is human nature and the nature of youth to be drawn to that which is most forbidden and passionate, radical Islam is a magnet for a disturbingly large number of young people in that tribe. Normal, happy teenage girls in Britain are suddenly running away from home and finding their way to Syria so they can become the sex servants of ISIS militants. Hapless punks in Paris are turning to murder because they are offended by cartoons.
How do we stop this? Even policemen with good aim cannot do the job alone. It would be nice to think an application of logic would help; that rationality could prevail over the fallacious beliefs that these children of jihad have adopted. But, so far, rationality and logic have not made a dent in the paranoia of Texans who think the U.S. Army is about to take over their state or birthers who think the president is a Kenyan, so why would it work on a kid who believes Allah has promised him Paradise if he is willing to die in the act of mass murder?