The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Another “Isolated Incident”

To borrow from Digby: Oops, there goes another isolated incident

A 63-year-old Southern California man who was traveling with explosives in his vehicle with the intention of blowing up one of the nation’s largest mosques where mourners had gathered for a funeral was arrested in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan authorities said Sunday.

Dearborn police said Roger Stockham was arraigned Wednesday on one count of making a false report or threat of terrorism and one count of possessing explosives with an unlawful intent. Stockham had a large but undisclosed quantity of class-C fireworks including M-80s, which are outlawed in Michigan, Chief Ronald Haddad said.

“I was comfortable with the fact that we had taken him off the street – he isn’t going anywhere,” Haddad told The Associated Press Sunday afternoon. “I think the society he wanted to impact is safe.”

Haddad said Stockham was arrested Monday evening without incident in the parking lot of Islamic Center of America, while a large group was gathered inside. He said police received a 911 call from a resident.

Haddad said authorities believe Stockham was acting alone but still take him “very seriously.” He said Stockham has “a long history of anti-government activities,” though he declined to elaborate.

I’ve added this to the timeline of isolated incidents I posted earlier.

TPM has more on this guy. 

“He’s very dangerous,” Dearborn Police Chief Ron Haddad told the Free Press. “We took his threat to be very serious.”

Haddad said the Stockham, now in jail on $500,000 bond, was previously known to law enforcement officials in other parts of the country and law enforcement believes he drove from California to Michigan because of the large Muslim population. Haddad said the explosives were high-end fireworks, and that the FBI had been notified.

“He’s had a long history of being angry with the United States government,” Haddad told the newspaper.

At the time the suspect was found outside the Islamic Center, the mosque was holding a funeral with up to 700 people inside, Haddad told the newspaper. The suspect didn’t appear to have known about the funeral, Haddad added.

Of course, the right wing blogosphere is working overtime to make this guy a screaming liberal and “mentally ill Wikileaks supporter.” My suspicion is that mental illness overrides political leanings in some cases. Someone who’s prone to paranoia may respond to such elements on either or both ends of the political scale. Thus, they may not fit nearly in to political categories like “left” and “right.” In some cases, determining an individual’s politics and the degree to which they influenced his actions may require a more comprehensive view. In other cases, it may be impossible to discern with any clarity. (Let alone finality.)

The TPM piece also points to an LA Times article saying that Stockman has a “long history of mental problems.” That seems to be part of the problem with these incidents. But this post at Lawyers Guns and Money (written by someone who teaches rhetoric) makes an important point. 

Note the interconnectedness of the speaker and audience.  The general problem with discussing rhetoric in the current media environment is that the particularity of the audience is absent.  Anyone can read or watch or listen to anything without regard for their relation to the intended audience and without reference to the action whose commission the rhetor intends.  In such a situation, it is not surprising when the mode of persuasion favored by speakers is the one that is most effectively general.

I’m quoting a small part of the post here. Go and read the rest of it. It’s a worthwhile read. The reason that part jumped out at me is because of the point it makes about the changed reality of the audience in this media environment. The audience is no longer just the people in the room, or just the people listening on the radio or watching on television. The audience is essentially everyone who has access to media via the airwaves, internet, etc. The audience also isn’t limited in terms of time or context. A speech given at a particular time may live on indefinitely on Youtube. Passages can be quoted on any number of blogs, message boards, etc. Mere sentences can be tweeted and retweeted. 

All of this can blur the intention of the speaker. And an audience that essentially contains anyone who accesses media at any time can encompass those who are mentally ill, prone to paranoia, violence, etc. As SEK wrote in the post quoted above, “It stands to reason that if we want to understand what ‘violent rhetoric’ entails, we must focus on whose images and stories are stoking whose imaginations and to what effect.” 

The question is, does this place an impossible burden on the speaker, to craft a message that doesn’t stoke the imaginations of people who may be mentally ill, violent, etc, to disastrous effect? Political and media figures on the right do have a point that their rhetoric may be misinterpreted or misunderstood by people who are already mentally and/or cognitively challenged, or people who are prone to violence, and upon taking root in the minds of such people may bear fruit the speakers never intended. But does that absolve such speakers of a responsibility to be mindful of the unintended harmful effects their words and images may have, when they reach beyond the intended audience of people who “know what you mean” or understand the coded words and phrases in a way the others may not? 

Washington Post blogger Jonathan Capehart pointed to Al Sharpton as one political/media figure whose experience holds a lesson for others such figures:

To be clear, I am not seeking credit for a noble act. Nor do I claim to be above feeling anger or understanding the frustrations that can stem from issues of race. Indeed, a few years later, a controversy erupted in Harlem over a white businessman’s efforts to evict the longtime owner of the first black-owned business on 125th Street. I decided to support the protesters because I believed that the eviction disregarded the culture and history of the neighborhood.

The morning that I was to lead a peaceful march, I gave a speech during a weekly radio broadcast in which I said that we need to deal with a “white interloper” who was trying to alter the landscape of Harlem. My clear intent was to lead a peaceful protest. I did so that day, but I was wrong to refer to this man’s race, and I was not careful in making distinctly clear that we were solely calling for nonviolent opposition.

Two and half months later, a disturbed and troubled man went to a neighboring store and set a fire. He killed several of the store’s employees and then himself. My words were immediately raised in the media. My initial response was to defend the fact that I had never condoned such violence, and never would. But the fact is, if I in any way contributed to the climate – which was clearly more volatile than I had thought – I had to be more careful and deliberate in my public language rather than sharpen my defenses.

As we sort out what happened in Tucson, we must resist the temptation to merely cast blame, and we all must be more aware of the weakness of the idea that we do not somehow contribute to the vitriolic atmosphere. Everyone must be alert. Much as I went over the line years ago, those with public voices must ensure that their messages cannot be misconstrued as calling for a heinous act. Every morning, I think about how wounds are very real – psychologically and physically.

No one can, with any credibility, say that Sharpton intended or even called for someone to set fire to store in Harlem and the employees who worked there. LIkewise, no one can say with any credibility that Sarah Palin or Jesse Kelly intended for anyone to shoot and/or kill Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But in all three cases, it’s reasonable to suggest that volatile rhetoric loaded and imagery had the potential to reach anyone, including those who might misconstrue it due to mental illness or misuse it for violent purposes the speakers may not have specifically intended. It’s also reasonable to suggest that the persistent use of such rhetoric and imagery not only increases the likelihood of the above by its proliferation, but also by its effect on the political atmosphere.

Likewise, whatever Stockham’s mental state, it’s not inconceivable (and quite likely) that the level of anti-Muslim sentiment injected into our politics in the past year influenced his actions either directly or indirectly. It was prominent enough to earn a mention in President Obama’s State of the Union address. Just last month, Homeland Security Committee char Rep. Peter King (R) announced that he would hold a hearing on “the radicalization of the American Muslim community.” More recently, Rep. Allan West declared that Rep. Keith Ellison (who is Muslim) represents “the antithesis of of the principles on which this country was established.”  

Perhaps in this, we could take a lesson from Muslims in Egypt, when it comes to both values and divisive politics.

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

Among those shields were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who have said they consider the attack one on Egypt as a whole.

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

It’s probably impossible to craft a message that’s guaranteed not to be “misconstrued as calling for a heinous act” by troubled minds. However, given not the realities of our political atmosphere, but also a wide-open media environment in which the audience basically includes everyone all the time, Sharpton’s lesson rings true for everyone from political candidates to media figures, and all the way down to political bloggers; in other words, anyone whose words hold the potential in reach and influence a wide and diverse audience. 

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