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Taibbi: Is It Fair to Blame Trumpism for These Latest Explosive Devices?

This history of terror reporting says to wait a day or two before the facts come out

Police investigators gather around a bomb squad truck outside the Time Warner Center in New York after the discovery of an explosive device at the CNN offices on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. Explosive devices were sent to former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as to CNN's offices in New York, sparking an intense investigation on Wednesday into whether a bomber is going after targets that have often been the subject of right-wing ire. (Jeenah Moon/The New York Times)

Police investigators gather around a bomb squad truck outside the Time Warner Center in New York after the discovery of an explosive device at the CNN offices on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018.

Jeenah Moon/The New York Times/Redux

Explosive devices and/or suspicious packages were sent to a number of major Democratic Party-linked figures this week, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, philanthropist and financier George Soros, former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), and former CIA chief John Brennan.

The offices of the San Diego Union-Tribune were also evacuated after “suspicious packages” were found, and a device was removed from the Time Warner center in Manhattan, home to CNN.

Early news stories drew immediate connections to aggressive and irresponsible rhetoric from the right, including from President Trump. The Guardian noted that Soros has long been the target of right-wing paranoia, with Trump claiming Soros paid protesters against the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The New York Times story about the incidents was quick to draw a similar connection:

Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama, Mr. Soros and CNN have all figured prominently in conservative political attacks — many of which have been led by President Trump. He has often referred to major news organizations as “the enemy of the people,” and has had a particular animus for CNN.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — who also received a suspicious package that was quickly deemed “safe” by police — was asked if he had a message for Donald Trump.

“Bring down the heat. I want to bring down the rancor. There is an apparent political pattern to this,” he said.

I have no love for Trump, his disgraceful rhetoric, or the blatantly anti-Semitic attacks against the likes of Soros. And no sane person can have anything but contempt for the kind of incitement of violence that has become routine online (witness Bill McKibben’s story about anti-environmentalists calling for someone to dig up his address and bring “civil disobedience” to his home). Even without these bomb incidents, this should all be denounced in the strongest terms.

But if there’s one thing history tells us about terrorism, it’s that these stories often end up having very different narratives than what is first suspected in the heat of the moment. Facts that later emerge often leave us in a completely different place than we’d have expected.

Because of the 24-hour news cycle and our addiction to second-to-second updates from reporters, celebrities and politicians alike on social media, it’s almost impossible not to speculate and point fingers right after we hear scary news. This is a form of journalistic malpractice that has gone sideways on more than a few of us in the business over the years.

The worst case was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, in which reports after the attack said police were seeking two men of “Middle Eastern” appearance for questioning. The New York Times noted the bombing had taken place on the anniversary of Federal agents’ assault on Waco.

But unnamed officials told them domestic right-wing groups lacked “the technical expertise to engage in bombings like the one today,” and the paper speculated at length about Muslim connections.

CBS after the OKC bombing quoted a “terrorism expert” who said the apparent intent to inflict as many casualties as possible was a “Middle Eastern trait.” Columnist Cal Thomas pointed the finger at immigrants. Georgie Ann Geyer said the attack had the “earmark of the Islamic car-bombers of the Middle East.”

Rampant speculation led to more threats and misbehavior, with Muslims around the country called baby-killers and worse. The furor didn’t end until Janet Reno announced the attacks appeared “domestic in nature,” and the arrest of Timothy McVeigh taught us to look inward when terror attacks take place.  

When TWA flight 800 blew up over the Long Island Sound a year later, the Times reported that investigators were focused on “terrorism” and speculated the Boeing 747 could have been detonated by a Stinger missile, “such as the mujahidin used in Afghanistan.” But that case remains unsolved.

Ten days after the TWA crash, a pipe bomb went off at the Atlanta Olympics. This led to rampant speculation that the guard who found the bomb, Richard Jewell, had planted the explosive himself.

Jewell became the focus of intense coverage by CNN, NBC, the New York Post and countless other outlets. A former Army explosives expert named Eric Rudolph was ultimately convicted of the crime, along with several abortion clinic bombings. Ironically, decades later, Sean Spicer seemed to blame the bombings on Islamic terrorists.

Social media has sped up rushes to judgment. After the Boston Marathon bombings, Reddit investigators pointed the finger at a (deceased, as it turned out) Brown University student named Sunil Tripathi. The New York Post under the headline BAG MEN put two other Middle Easterners on the front page, after their names and photos had circulated in online discussions.

More recently, an African-American gun-rights advocate named Mark Hughes became the subject of a public furor after a Dallas police Twitter account fingered him as a suspect in the sniper killings of five police officers.

If you’re thinking the lesson in all these incidents is just to skip past the foreign suspects and go straight for the homegrown, flag-waving right-wing patriot, well, that doesn’t always work out, either.

The infamous Anthrax letters sent in the wake of 9/11 to press outlets and a pair of Democratic Senators caused 17 to fall ill, and five to die. They were written to sound like they came from Islamic terrorists.

Domestic sleuths quickly decided the letters were a pose and shifted their focus to a former Army doctor named Steven Hatfill. Hatfill was a flamboyantly patriotic type who regaled acquaintances with stories of battling communists in youthful trips to then-Rhodesia (Zimbabwe today).

Members of the US Marine Corps Chemical / Biological Incident Response Force get ready to enter the Longworth House building to sweep for Anthrax. The Longworth Office Building houses members of the US CongressAMERICAN MARINE CHEMICAL BIOLOGICAL INCIDENT RESPONSE FORCE CHECK FOR ANTHRAX AT LONGWORTH HOUSE, WASHINGTON DC, AMERICA - 25 OCT 2001

Members of the US Marine Corps Chemical/Biological Incident Response Force get ready to enter the Longworth House building to sweep for Anthrax. The Longworth Office Building houses members of the US Congress. Photo credit: REX Shutterstock

In a column for the Times, Nicholas Kristof, calling Hatfill “Mr. Z,” said that if he “were an Arab national, he would have been imprisoned long ago.” He then went on to speculate that “Mr. Z” was not only guilty of murder, but genocide. Addressing the FBI in the apostrophic column, he wrote:

Have you examined whether Mr. Z has connections to the biggest anthrax outbreak among humans ever recorded, the one that sickened more than 10,000 black farmers in Zimbabwe in 1978–80? There is evidence that the anthrax was released by the white Rhodesian Army fighting against black guerrillas, and Mr. Z has claimed that he participated in the white army’s much-feared Selous Scouts…

Hatfill, it seems, was innocent. As the Atlantic later pointed out:

Kristof didn’t mention that the majority of soldiers in the Rhodesian army, and in Hatfill’s unit, were black; or that many well-respected scientists who examined the evidence concluded that the Rhodesian anthrax outbreak emerged naturally when cattle herds went unvaccinated…

A huge problem with terror stories is that journalists are rushed for scoops and often take short cuts they otherwise wouldn’t. An infamous case involved Channel 4 in England, which relied on one source to identify the culprit in the Westminster terror attack. The man turned out to be in prison at the time of the incident.

Worse, a lot of TV programs have national security consultants who are paid specifically to speculate before facts are in, in cases just like this. Same with analysts from think tanks, whose job at least partly is to sit at desks, waiting to supply calling reporters with quotes. This is how you’ll get wildly divergent guesses about how terror incidents have “fingerprints” that “point to” this or that group, even before there’s a suspect or any kind of evidence.

Just as bad is the penchant for non-press actors these days to engage in phony terror attacks in order to get eyeballs and clicks. We’ve seen a YouTuber pretend to throw acid at people in England, trying to surf on real fears about a real rise in acid attacks in Britain. There’s a whole genre of staged “terror” attacks online.

***

There’s no question that our current climate of vicious political rhetoric is out of hand, and that our president is significantly responsible. In the early stages of Trump’s campaign in the summer of 2015, a pair of jackasses beat up a Hispanic homeless man in Boston. One of them was heard saying upon arrest, “Donald Trump was right, all of these illegals need to be deported.”

Trump’s infamous response — that his supporters are “very passionate” — told us even then what he was all about.

But in something on the scale of what’s happening this week, waiting a day or two to freak out makes sense. History tells us perpetrators of such atrocities often count on media overreactions and stumbles.

Moreover, unless this turns out to be some wannabe Internet celebrity’s unfunniest-ever idea of a Punk’d stunt — in which case said person should be dropped down to the bottom of the deepest salt mine we have — this series of incidents will certainly result in calls for sweeping political change. Something this upsetting will likely inspire radical security proposals that may alter all our futures on a fundamental level. Given that, let’s at least know exactly what we’re dealing with before the next round of our increasingly savage national argument commences.

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