September 21, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, September 21, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The irrationality of terrorists: One was a "normal American kid," the other had a history with the FBI
Part of what it means to be human is to seek a rational explanation for the phenomenon that we observe. When we watch the world around us we want to be able to give an answer for why certain things take place, why other things do not happen. We try to interpret events and we try to interpret conversations, people, headlines. We try to interpret all of these things in order to come up with some rational way of understanding our world. The instinctive hunger for this kind of rationality makes us want to find a rational explanation for the headlines about terror that emerged in recent days, on the one hand in New York and New Jersey, and on the other hand in the state of Minnesota. But a closer look at unfolding events reveals just how difficult this kind of rationalization is actually going to be. It’s going to be extremely difficult for us to get a fully rational picture of what is in one sense irrational. Furthermore, even on a rational basis. we’re looking at two completely different stories in terms of what we are told about these two men who are suspected of carrying out these terror attacks, the first in New York and New Jersey, Ahmad Khan Rahami, and then in Minnesota, Dahir Adan.
Headlines that were available yesterday indicated two directly different, if not contradictory, stories about these two men. Yesterday’s edition of the New York Times, for example, had a front-page story entitled first,Show Full Transcript
“Seeing a Transformation After a Trip Overseas.”
But second, inside, dealing with the Minnesota attacks the headline was this,
“Minnesota Attacker Called ‘A Normal American Kid.”
In both articles, investigative reporters were able to piece together at least parts of the stories of these two men. First of all, in that front-page story dealing with the attacks in New York and New Jersey, N.R. Kleinfeld wrote,
“He presided behind the counter of a storefront New Jersey fried chicken restaurant, making his home with his family in an apartment above it. To some of his friends, Ahmad Khan Rahami was known as Mad, an abridgment of his name rather than a suggestion of his manner, and they liked that he gave them free food when they were short on money.
“Beyond that,” writes Kleinfeld, “his other known obsession was souped-up Honda Civics that he liked to race.”
Then notice the following words,
“In recent years, though, some friends noticed a marked change in his personality and religious devotion after what they believed was a trip to Afghanistan, where he and his relatives are from.
“In fact, a federal official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Rahami had actually traveled to Pakistan, for three months in 2011 and, most recently, to Quetta, for nearly a year, where he stayed with family, returning to the United States in March 2014.”
When you look at the story in terms of the details available to us, you see that according to the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the New York Times, this man, who was assumed not to be a threat by many, turns out to have gone to the Middle East, to Afghanistan and perhaps to Pakistan, at least once if not up to four times, and after those trips was understood even by his close associates to be somewhat different, if not radicalized in terms of terrorism.
Then another bombshell dropped yesterday when the Wall Street Journal reported that the father of the suspect in New York and New Jersey had identified him as a terrorist to law enforcement officials two years ago. As Pervaiz Shallwani and Devlin Barrett of the Wall Street Journal reported,
“Federal terrorism investigators looked in the claims made two years ago by the father of the New York bomb suspect that he was a terrorist, but dropped the matter when the father recanted, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation.”
In their story yesterday, the New York Times reporters said that little is known of Mr. Rahami’s ideology or politics or whether he has any connections to foreign terrorist organizations. Then they note he used to wear Western-style clothing and customers said he gave little indication of his heritage. But all that began to change about four years ago, it is now suspected as a result of his visits to the Middle East. When he disappeared four years ago, he disappeared for a while, but when he reappeared,
“Some patrons noticed a certain transformation.”
He grew a beard and exchanged his typical wardrobe of T-shirts and sweatpants for traditional Muslim robes. He began to pray in the back of the store. His previous genial bearing turned more stern. One observer said,
“It’s like he was a completely different person. He got serious and completely closed off.”
One federal law enforcement official asked the question,
“Where did he really go and what did he do overseas that a kid who lived in a normal New Jersey life came back as a sophisticated bomb maker and terrorist?”
Well, we can accept that will at least begin the long series of questions that will have to be asked here. But the questions also have to point to the fact that here you have law enforcement officials told two years ago by the father of the suspect that the father believed he was a terrorist. You also have the story that he was jailed for some time for stabbing a relative. Now you put all this together and the obvious question is, why wasn’t this terror threat taken seriously at the time? Or if it was taken seriously, why was there such a misjudgment about this man’s potential as a terrorist? Furthermore, you’re looking at the fact that New York and New Jersey law enforcement officials are now indicating that there was an incredible sophistication to the bombs that were left by this man intended to bring maximum death and mayhem, and thus how very close both states came to an even larger tragedy.
Keep that in mind as we shift to the second story. Remember the big story here is that there were apparently no signs of radicalization, no signs of change in the life or the thinking of the other suspect, Dahir Adan. As Mitch Smith and Richard Pérez-Peña of the New York Times reported,
“The man who the police say stabbed 10 people at a mall here on Saturday seemed like a model of assimilation, not a violent jihadist, people who knew him and his family said. The son of Somali refugees, he lived in the United States most of his life, did well in school, played sports, worked as a security guard and took classes at a local college.
“But a new description has been applied to him: terrorist. As he stalked through the Crossroads Center mall, wearing a security guard uniform and wielding a knife, the attacker, identified by officials on Monday as Dahir Adan, 20, mentioned Allah and asked at least one victim if he was Muslim, the police said.”
By the time Monday ended, the man was identified by ISIL as “a soldier of the Islamic State”
Meanwhile, someone who had known him well said,
“He was a normal American kid. I can’t see anyone more assimilated than that guy.”
Inside the article another person said that the man “was such a sweet humble guy and that’s how I still see him.”
Now that’s a very interesting statement, because the statement was made after he was identified very clearly as the prime suspect, and that’s using legal language as merely suspect, rather than terrorist. So we began by talking about our instinctive desire to try to rationalize, that is to come up with a reasonable rational explanation for human behavior. But here we have completely contradictory stories. On the one hand in New York we have the story of a man who was radicalized, now we believe, because of a visit or visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan and who showed signs of the kind of radicalization that was evident in an increased attention to Islam, changing Western garb for Islamic garb and also a change in personality. But in Minnesota, no change in personality whatsoever; as a matter of fact, you have a young man has claimed to be the very model of an assimilated citizen from a Somali background.
In the case of Rahami, the obvious question is going to be, why in the world did law enforcement officials, state, local and national, fail to see what in retrospect was a clear terror threat? But in the case of Dahir Adan, apparently at least to this date, no one has come up with a single sign that anyone perceived of anything out of the ordinary in this man’s behavior, much less the fact that he would pose a terror threat.
So from the Christian worldview what does this tell us? Well it tells us once again of our stunning inability to read the mentality, the ideology, much less the emotional states and the intentions, morally speaking, of those around us. We want to understand who we are seeing and interacting with when we’re in public or in private. We want to understand that people are operating from a worldview that makes sense to us. We want to believe that somehow we can read minds and read hearts and understand who’s a threat and who is planning evil. And the interesting thing is that sometimes that is indeed possible. That’s why in the first case, there are going to be lots of questions about signs now so obvious that apparently were missed or were at least misunderstood. But then you also have the situation coming from Minnesota in which you have the more ominous threat, and that is that there apparently were no signs whatsoever.
The Christian worldview reminds us that evil is far more subtle than the secular worldview can understand. The secular worldview understands evil to be rooted in some kind of pathology with an explanation that’s political or social, educational, or perhaps economic. But none of that apparently applies to either of these cases, at least in terms of the traditional kinds of explanations that come from the liberal secular worldview. That’s made abundantly clear in a new book on terror by Lawrence Wright. He had written one book, The Looming Tower, that is the classic explanation of the rise of Al Qaeda. In his new book, The Terror Years, he points out as he had in his previous books that most of the headline people in terms of world terror do not come from economic or educational deprivation. That was especially true in the case of Osama bin Laden, whose father was one of the wealthiest men in the world and who had all the advantages that kind of wealth could buy. Furthermore, even looking at the rise of the Islamic State and so many other terrorists, it’s clear they do not come from a situation of deprivation, but often from a situation of even Western privilege. And in the case of both of the two men that are now part of this headline terror story, one in Minnesota, the other New York and New Jersey, it’s clear that they do not fit the model of economic or educational deprivation.
The heart is desperately wicked: Experts unable to find predictor for “Lone Wolf” terror
A similar point was made yesterday in a major analysis published by Alan Cullison at the Wall Street Journal. The headline of this story was,
“Experts See No Single Explanation for ‘Lone Wolf’ Terror Attacks.”
The author cites John Horgan at Georgia State University who commented,
“The fact that there is no clear terrorist ‘profile’ is not a ‘failure’ of research. It is the result of research.”
What did Horgan mean? He meant that there is no single explanation, thus the reason why there are multiple profiles for terrorism is because there are multiple profiles for terrorists. The author of the article went on to say that,
“Attacks by lone wolves, stray dogs or ‘scrubs’ are likely [to increase].”
“The U.S. has mostly severed any operational tentacles of extremist groups that may have reached into the country. Attacks like those in Paris last year, which were carried out by men trained by Islamic State, are unlikely here.”
But he points out,
“The U.S. has been far less successful in spotting disconnected attackers, who Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan told Congress this summer are ‘an exceptional challenging issue for the intelligence community.’”
Cullison went on to summarize,
“The quest for singular causes has been denounced as a fool’s errand and researchers have seen their theories debunked or qualified.”
One of those researchers is J.M. Berger at George Washington University, he points out that poverty as a cause of terror appears to be one very familiar explanation, yet some of the most prominent attackers have been from middle-class backgrounds, not to mention as I said in the case of Osama bin Laden, the example of rare privilege. Lack of education also according to the article doesn’t appear to be a cause. Berger said,
“In fact it’s been shown there is an opposite correlation, and that people who are more educated are more likely to become terrorists,” he said. “But you don’t see anyone calling for less education to fight it.”
So here we have secular military intelligence officials acknowledging they really don’t know how to read terror intentions, especially when it comes to reading the heart. The Scripture reminds us that the heart is desperately wicked. This means that the fallen human heart, the sinful human heart, is capable of incredible deviousness and subtlety, even in planning evil intent. We would find it difficult to read the signs of anyone around us who might be planning some kind of evil action. There might be some signs, but we might even miss those signs. In the cases of these headlines, there are indications that both patterns prevail: signs that were present but missed and signs that don’t appear to have been present at all. You know, there’s one other aspect of this that probably bothers us all. We would like to look at headlines like this and think over time we’ll know more. But at the deepest level, Christians have to acknowledge, perhaps it’s true that over time, even knowing more, we’ll have to acknowledge quite humbly we actually, when it comes to the human heart, know even less.
What is the proper moral reflex in response to the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man in Tulsa?
Next, also here in the United States, headline news with a haunting parallel. A team of reporters for the Washington Post report with a headline,
“Debate swirls around unarmed black man’s actions prior to fatal police shooting in Tulsa.”
The reporters tell us,
“A day after police in Oklahoma released video that shows a white Tulsa police officer fatally shooting an unarmed black man, attorneys representing the slain man’s family released photos that they said contradict a key claim in authorities’ version of events.”
Once again, we face the fact that when a headline like this emerges—we’ve seen so many of them in recent months, a black man dead, law enforcement accused—we see that two different sides immediately line up in the United States: those who are ready to support law enforcement and those who are ready to condemn law enforcement as being institutionally racist. We also see that almost immediately there is something that is at least slightly encouraging here, even as there are at least two rival narratives that are at stake in terms of what happened. You’ll notice that there is still an instinctive desire to know what happened. In other words, even as there are two different narratives, there cannot be two different events. It had to come down one way or the other. It’s at least encouraging in this day of all kinds of relativism that the truth of the situation will eventually come down to the best effort possible to determine what actually happened. But beyond the ‘what actually happened’ are the questions of ‘why.’ And here we find ourselves again trying to read the intentions—one human being or several human beings—of others.
In the case of Terence Crutcher, there are those who immediately are pointing to the fact that he had no weapon and that he appeared to be standing with his hands over his head walking towards his vehicle. But there are others, including law enforcement officials, who claim that he was somehow trying to reach inside his vehicle, presumably, perhaps, for a gun. But then you have the fact that you have video available and at least there is some contradictory evidence of that claim. Thus, we have rival claims about what happened. But there is on both sides at least the acknowledgment that it really does matter what happened.
Here we have to avoid an immediate rush to judgment, because the first thing we should demand is that it must be important to find out what happened. But behind that there must also be the affirmation that in every case of every single human being we’re discussing here, we’re discussing a human being made in the image of God. We’re talking about a precious human life. We’re also talking about the fact that any reasonable Christian consideration of this question must come down to the fact that we are so dependent upon law enforcement officials who have to make judgments that most of us would be absolutely frightened to make. They have to make judgments because they accept responsibility to protect us. So in a very real and immediate sense, we have to acknowledge our gratitude and dependence for those who are willing to put on a uniform, or otherwise to stand in the lives of law enforcement understanding that they will be making decisions that we do not have to make. And those decisions will often have to be made almost instantaneously.
It’s one thing for civilians to acknowledge that, it’s another thing for us then to understand that with that being the case, this is a lot more difficult than we might otherwise presume. But we also have to recognize the institutional legacy of racism, and we have to acknowledge that somehow all of that gets coded into that decision making even by intuition that happens almost instantaneously.
Then there are other important moral considerations that seem to be added to the mix, different with every story. In this case, police officials have indicated that the drug PCP was found in Crutcher’s car. Meanwhile, those who include the attorneys for the Crutcher family said that the reports linking him to drugs were an attempt to “intellectually justify Crutcher’s death.”
Biblically minded Christians often find themselves, on the other side of this kind of heartbreaking headline, put into the position where we might make an almost immediate snap judgment or, on the other hand, might overly delay that kind of judgment. The “wait and see” or “wait until the facts are all known” argument is often juxtaposed with an argument of moral urgency about the fact that, obviously, there are human lives that are here at stake and racism is a clear and present danger. I would suggest that in light of this, there are some immediate moral reflexes that we should build into our understanding and architecturally support with the Christian worldview.
The first is this: we should never hesitate or wait for further information to affirm the fact that every single human being is made in God’s image and every single human life is precious. Secondly, we should never hesitate waiting for more facts to be known to affirm that racism is real in America, and that racism is a legacy of previous sins that simply continue and amplify human sinfulness and depravity from generation to generation. Thirdly, we should never hesitate demanding that more facts should be known to acknowledge our humble and grateful dependence upon law enforcement officials who put their lives on the line and stand in our place to secure our liberties and to protect our communities. That is something that does not require further information.
So those are three affirmations that should never be delayed by demand for further facts: the sanctity of every single human life, the reality of racism, and our grateful dependence upon brave and courageous law enforcement officials. But then it is vitally important that we do give time for investigations to produce a factual record of what happened so that the judgments that need to be made about a specific situation would not be merely driven by passion, however immediately justified, but by facts and reasoned judgment that will lead to a righteous justice. But finally on this issue, Christians must also understand that we must not hesitate to mourn with those who mourn, that too is a biblical mandate. Mourning with those who mourn does not exhaust our moral responsibility, but biblically speaking, it is a very good place to start.
Real ethics for artificial intelligence? Human beings and the gift of moral consciousness
Finally, John Markoff of the New York Times wrote a really interesting article about several tech companies trying to develop what are called,
“Real Ethics for Artificial Intelligence.”
Let that sink in just a bit.
“Real Ethics for Artificial Intelligence.”
The article is about five huge tech giants in Silicon Valley, including Google and Facebook, who are trying to collaborate in order to come up with a standard of ethics around the creation of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is big money; it is seen as a huge industry in the future, and of course it is a massive technological leap. It is also controversial and inherently morally conflicted. You’re talking about the creation of machines or of processes and computer programs that operate in what might be called intelligence. It’s interesting that these five tech giants at least understand there’s a problem here and that somehow they’re trying to come up with, well there’s that headline, “Real Ethics for Artificial Intelligence.”
But this is where Christians have to understand that the biblical worldview affirms that human beings and human beings alone are made as moral creatures, that is, intelligent creatures made by the Creator with a moral consciousness. That is something we do not share with other sentient beings, that is, with other creatures. It is unique to human beings, which is also affirmed oddly enough by the fact that it is human beings meeting together who are trying to collaborate on creating a set of “real ethics for artificial intelligence.”
Again, I guess it’s encouraging that these tech giants recognize that there are moral dimensions to what they propose to do with this new technology. But it’s also really interesting that in the end—and in the beginning and from a biblical worldview—even in the end it is human beings and human beings alone who will possess that moral consciousness. That results singularly by being made in God’s image. It’s a very different thing then to turn around and talk about human beings creating artificial intelligence. I guess we should be encouraged by a headline that talks about the quest for real ethics for artificial intelligence. That’s far more encouraging than artificial morality for very real human beings