Since the San Bernardino massacre, you’d be forgiven for believing the American homeland is under siege by men planning to kill you in the name of ISIS, one of the very few things everyone alive can agree on fearing together. But how many scary men doing scary things in America have any actual connection to the Islamic State?
“ISIS” has drifted, in the American popular understanding, from a quasi-political entity, with members and leaders and specific territorial and strategic goals, to an amorphous scare-blob that more closely resembles an evil Islamic Anonymous than, say, Hamas. Before, one had to actually make a perilous voyage to Syria or Iraq and pledge fealty in order to be considered a “member” of ISIS in some capacity. But the door seems to been flung wide open and pretenses of exclusivity dropped, thanks to the particularly dumb trend in law enforcement (at both the federal and local level) to grant ISIS membership to any penny-ante malefactor who merely says the word ISIS, before, during, or after a crime. Want to be in ISIS? Write down ISIS on a sticky note and get arrested with a knife. Congrats, buddy, you’re a jihadi.
On New Year’s Eve, a 25-year-old man named Emanuel Lutchman was arrested in Rochester after he “planned to commit an armed attack against civilians,” according to law enforcement, in the name of ISIS. New York governor Andrew Cuomo swiftly praised the arrest and noted, solemnly, that it provided “an important reminder of the new normal of global terrorism.” What he didn’t mention was the fact that Lutchman was a homeless man with a history of mental illness, and that the attack he had “planned” was an incredibly vague plot to use knives provided to him by an undercover FBI agent. According to The Buffalo News, police “obtained copies of electronic communications between Lutchman and a person who said they were an member of the Islamic State in Syria,” but there’s no proof this person was any more a terrorist than Lutchman himself.
Our terrorist mastermind Emanuel Lutchman had a record of mental health problems & couldn't afford $40 for weapons. pic.twitter.com/i0JiMpRBXv— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) December 31, 2015
Even dumber was the ISIS affiliation pinned to Philadelphian Edward Archer, who shot a cop in the beginning of January and later told authorities he’d done it “in the name of the Islamic State,” according to CNN. Only later was it reported that Archer wasn’t a practicing Muslim, had no evidence of radicalization, and most importantly, appeared to be schizophrenic: “He’s been acting kind of strange lately. He’s been talking to himself . . . laughing and mumbling...He’s been hearing voices in his head. We asked him to get medical help,” his mother told the Philadelphia Inquirer. Men who both hear voices in their heads and own guns are frightening, to be sure, but they’re neither a new development in American law enforcement nor part of an overseas militant group, even tangentially. Nonetheless, NBC News described him as an “ISIS lover.” As a descriptor for an alleged criminal, that is about as germane as referring to someone who holds up a pizzeria as a “Meat Lover.”
The NYPD is looking for an Upper Manhattan-based man who they believe may be looking to shoot police officers, police officials said Wednesday. New York police got information about the unidentified man first from a phone call Tuesday from the Philadelphia Police Department. Then, the NYPD received an anonymous call about the same man which “indicated ISIS,” said NYPD Chief of Intelligence Thomas Galati. “We are taking it seriously.”
“I don’t know if it is ISIS or what, but he is destroying Buddhas, and figurines, and stuff,” the frightened dad told a 911 operator. He said Sullivan had poured gasoline on “religious items.” “I mean, we are scared to leave the house.”
An undercover officer made contact with Sullivan a little more than a month later. “1000 [victims]...Yes I’m thinking about using biological weapons...Coat our bullets with cyanide...and then set off a gas bomb to finish off the rest,” Sullivan allegedly wrote to the agent.
Your fucked up teenager isn’t a terrorist—he’s fucked up teenager. It’s doubtful your fucked up teen has any meaningful understanding of the political doctrines of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Your fucked up teen may very well be a criminal and need some serious help (or even prison time), but don’t give him the satisfaction of taking ISIS fantasy play seriously.
This fantasizing, the risible idea that a deranged, desperate person with zero understanding of ISIS beyond what they might see on CNN closed captioning while sitting at a bar can be counted among the ranks of a highly organized military group half the world away, has real consequences. The specter of “lone wolf” ISIS attacks is already shaping domestic and foreign policy as the 2016 election approaches—there’s no doubt the San Bernardino massacre has made Trump’s codified Islamophobia more palatable to moderate bigots (never mind that there’s no evidence either of the married shooters had ever made any actual contact with ISIS). In the most recent Democratic debate, NBC’s Lester Holt asked the candidates about this very canard:
You have all talked about what you would do fighting ISIS over there, but we’ve been hit in this country by home-grown terrorists, from Chattanooga to San Bernardino, the recent shooting of a police officer in Philadelphia.
But we weren’t “hit” in Philadelphia (note how keen Holt is to use the language of foreign terror). A man who needed serious medical intervention shot a cop and recited something he’d recently heard or read as justification. Fringe groups and boogeymen will come and go. This has happened (copycat killers still obsess over Charles Manson) and will continue to happen long after the Islamic State is gone, when some other spooky worm works its way into our psyches. Let’s not form policy based on what scares us right this very second.