Not quite the usual suspects

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EI SUN OH

I THINK it must have been slightly more than two decades ago, around 1995, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in the United States was destroyed by a car bomb, killing dozens and wounding even more. It was by then the worst case of domestic terrorism in US history. I was a student at the University of California.

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Like many Americans, I was glued to the television set for live updates of the sensationally horrible case. Happening against a backdrop of a series of other terrorist acts around the world, including the first, relatively less destructive (as compared to the 911 incident in 2001) bombing of the World Trade Center two years previous, most of which were supposedly inspired by religious extremism, it was perhaps only natural that many, including myself, turned instinctively to the same group of “usual suspects” when it came to “who did it this time”.

Later that day, I cycled to campus for what must have been a late afternoon class. Another bike pulled up beside me, and it turned out to be an erstwhile classmate of mine who was much more senior to me in age, as he was a war veteran, having fought in the Vietnam War. We struck up a conversation while riding together, and the topic turned almost inevitably to the Oklahoma City bombing earlier that day. He asked me who did I think committed the heinous act. I answered almost instantaneously, “Is there any doubt? It must have been those religious terrorists!”

My friend paused for a few seconds, then stared at me and asked again, “Are you sure? Why are you so sure?” By then, perhaps like many around the world who had to worry about their normal course of life being rudely interrupted by acts of blatant terrorism, I was already quite fed up, so I snapped back, “Don’t patronize me!” and I pulled away. Days later, I was of course proven wrong as the facts poured out after investigations. My friend was right. It was indeed not committed by the “usual suspects,” but by several US domestic racial supremacists. I never did apologize to my friend, but I thought I changed my presumptuous attitude quite a bit, vowing to never take things for granted anymore.

Those types of vows are, alas, perhaps quite fragile when once again the whole world is subjected to even more intensified terrorist attacks in recent months, albeit often on a smaller scale, as “lone wolf” or “small cell” types of attacks are now the “normal” modus operandi of similarly (supposedly) religiously inspired terrorists, stabbing, shooting or crashing into even just a few bystanders to create sporadic terror. All over Europe and North America, such “spontaneous” terrorist attacks have perhaps been “internalized” in people’s daily lives.

It was against this sort of renewed unsettling backdrop that the Las Vegas shooting took place over the weekend. The attendees of an open-air concert were sprayed with bullets from the upper floors of a nearby hotel late at night, and dozens upon dozens died from the gunshots while hundreds were wounded. It was again the worst case of gunshot attack in American history. The lone shooter apparently committed suicide.

Now of course Las Vegas is the mother of all such similar gambling towns around the world. For some people (including the alleged gunman in this case), Vegas is where their get-rich-quick dream may come to a speedy and hopeful fruition, although more often it is where such rosy dreams crash irretrievably. And for those of us who are at most casual gamblers or perhaps not at all interested in gambling, Vegas has also successfully rebranded itself since perhaps the 1990s as a sort of “integrated resort” place, where all members of the family can partake in the fun, from theme park fantasy to around the world in perhaps just one day, all side by side with the ever present gambling tables and machines.

But for those who insist that their religion commands a more fundamentalistically simple and pious life, Vegas would perhaps be viewed as the repository of everything that is the worst of the darker side of human nature, with repulsive elements such as lust, greed and gluttony. It was indeed a miracle that Vegas has not been subject to brutal acts of extremist terrorism before.

So, when this latest Vegas shooting spree was reported live, I suspect many people from around the world once again presumed that it must have been yet another heinous segment in the long series of recent terrorist attacks inspired by (supposedly) religious extremism. Indeed, even the seemingly ubiquitous Islamic State terrorist network came out and claimed responsibility for the killings. But the US authorities have so far ruled out such connection.

In these uncertain times, all of us would have to be ever vigilant in hopefully preventing acts of terrorism. But perhaps we should also be careful about our prejudices in presumptuously attributing mass terror to the “usual suspects”. Only with clarity and fairness would we be able to combat terrorism effectively.

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