CNN's coverage of Thursday night's attack on the El Al counter at Los Angeles Airport must have puzzled local viewers.
The obvious first assumption, given the timing and location of the incident, would surely be that it was a terror strike as was indeed stated immediately by Israeli officials. Yet CNN's broadcaster seemed at pains to stress that no such evidence was yet available (as if it could be) to draw such a conclusion. Instead, several other theories were floated. Perhaps it was a "work dispute," since early eyewitness accounts supposedly had the attacker shouting out "They cost me my job!" Others apparently described it as an "altercation that got out of hand," and CNN's newscaster even helpfully reminded viewers that "California is a place where a lot of people walk about carrying around guns."
This wasn't just a media line. US law enforcement officials also seemed to reluctant to label the incident a terrorist attack, instead saying that at first glance it appeared to be an "isolated incident." One American security expert appeared on the air confidently declaring that it was unlikely to be the forewarned al-Qaida strike on July 4, because that group prefers committing "large-scale terror attacks" as if al-Qaida operated only according to some kind of strictly followed playbook.
Even after the assailant was identified as Hesham Muhammad Ali Hadayet, an Egyptian national who has spent the past 12 years in the US, local law enforcement officials continued to resist drawing the obvious conclusion. Because Hadayet had no prior known links with terrorist groups, Richard Garcia, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation, told The New York Times it just as well could have been a "hate crime," or perhaps Hadayet "might simply have been despondent for some as yet unknown reason, perhaps a financial problem or a family dispute, and that despair drove him to violence."
It may well be that Hadayet had personal problems. It is also clear that he was capable of hate. "He had hate for Israel, for sure," the Times quoted one former employee in Hadayet's limousine service, who added "He [Hadayet] told me that the Israelis tried to destroy the Egyptian nation and the Egyptian population by sending prostitutes with AIDS to Egypt."
The Israel/AIDS conspiracy is a fantastic anti-Semitic canard widely circulated in Arab circles during the past decade. Perhaps Hadayet read about it in Egyptian newspapers sent from home, or saw it on anti-Israeli Internet sites, or heard it discussed in the local mosques near his home in the Los Angeles suburb of Irvine, described by an Israeli official in one report as "a problematic center of anti-Israel rhetoric recently."
The notion that an individual like Hadayet necessarily needed a direct personal order from the likes of Osama bin Laden to carry out his nefarious deed for it to be characterized as a "terror attack" rather than "isolated incident," "hate crime," or "despondent act" is a dangerously misguided one. It is misguided about the nature of terrorism in general, and about the nature of the enemy America is facing in specific. Haven't bin Laden and other Islamic terrorist leaders publicly called on individual Muslims like Hadayet to commit such acts? And when they do, isn't that terrorism, pure and simple?
Why the reluctance on the part of some in the US to acknowledge that this was clearly a terrorist attack on American soil? Because to do so would grant a victory to al-Qaida? Or because it would mean admitting that letting such a heavily armed man inside an airport terminal on a day when the nation was at the highest state of alert was a clear lapse of security? (Had Hadayet attacked any counter other then El Al, one wonders if he would have been stopped so quickly and prevented from killing many others).
Or is this a sign that even after 9/11, many Americans are still grappling with the mind shift needed to wage an extended war on terrorism both at home and abroad?
Even the early characterizations of the victims as Israelis Victoria Hen and Ya'acov Aminov were Israeli-Americans seemed intended to somehow shift the definition of the crime away from an act of terrorism against the US, to some kind of transplanted offshoot of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
No wonder that Hen's family felt compelled to issue a statement flatly declaring: "We the family believe that this was a murder, an act carried out by a terrorist against Israelis and American Israelis on American soil. We wish that the American government will once and for all take a clear and present stand on the issue of terror and will act on it."
The intention here is not to criticize the US war on terrorism from an Israeli perspective. Israel has its own problems, both in psychological and practical terms, in dealing with terrorism. The US, with its rich tradition of civil liberties and proudly multi-ethnic society must find its own, very different path, to fighting and defeating this scourge.
But echoing the Hen family, one thing needs to be stated loud and clear about last week's attack at LA airport. This was no "isolated incident." The enemies of America vowed to commit a terror strike on American soil on July 4 and they succeeded. America needs to clearly acknowledge this fact, draw the necessary conclusions, and then act on them as swiftly as possible.
©2002 - Jerusalem Post