Another vehicle ramming that was not a terrorist attack – or was – or ??

The news cycle is an unforgiving beast. Especially today when far flung events in hitherto remote corners of the world are made available to us in a flash thanks to the wonders of the Internet and social media (question: how many of us remember what it was like to keep up on such events before these media were around? Besides me I mean). We get the what, where, how, when and sometimes even the why nearly instantaneously, although the why part is sometimes a bit off in this age of what I call ‘instant analysis’.

I have learned over the past almost four years during which I have interacted with the media in the form of interviews and opinion pieces that people want to know the meaning behind events and they want to know it NOW! There really is no time set aside for reflection and true analysis, both of which require more information than is usually immediately available and the time to think it over. Quite the opposite: it is what do you have to say about X and why should we care about X?

Last Thursday an event along these lines swept me up into the ‘need to know’ (NB this term is used in intelligence circles to limit information, especially the most sensitive stuff, to only those who must know about it to do their jobs or make decisions: here I am referring to the media’s need to feed the news beast). I got a text in the evening from a regular of mine – a Canadian news radio outlet I have appeared on on many occasions. I was given a link to look at and asked if I could be on the show at o-dark-hundred the following morning. I looked at the link, it seemed related to the topics I typically weigh in on (i.e. terrorism) so I agreed.

The story in question was a vehicle ramming in California that resulted in no deaths but several injuries, some of them serious. Now I am pretty sure that I am not the only one to go immediately to the possibility that this could have been a terrorist act: after all, vehicle rammings have become the act of choice in recent years among terrorists of multiple stripes.

The first reaction in general, however, was that this was not a terrorist attack (maybe in part because the driver was not Muslim – yes that bias is out there). The man at the wheel was a US war veteran who, according to his family, experienced post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq. Based on this information it seemed like the unfortunate act of a broken man. That was what I said during my interview.

Now we have since learned that the driver, Isaiah Joel Peoples, deliberately ploughed his car into a group of eight pedestrians because he thought some of them were Muslim. He allegedly said to police when he was confronted
“Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.”

Oh my. That does change things — if it turns out to be true. We really need to wait on this, although waiting is not what the news cycle does well. I recall that I did end my very short exchange with the host by adding that it was possible that the driver was ‘radicalised’ during his tour in Iraq. I said it as an add-on, not really convinced I was on to something and certainly not in possession of any data on which to base such a hypothesis.

It thus appears that I may have been right, though not thanks to any inside dope. What still remains to be determined, if the attack was indeed deliberate and if Mr. Peoples did indeed think those he hit were Muslim, are several crucial things. What happened to him in Iraq? Was someone close to him killed and did he ascribe the death to a Muslim (Iraqi soldier or terrorist)? Did he buy into the whole ‘war on terrorism’ myth? Did he see himself as a warrior at the vanguard of protecting the US from the terrorist foe? Was he inspired by someone (coincidentally the man who attacked a synagogue also in California on Saturday said he was inspired by both the Christchurch terrorist and the man who attacked a synagogue in Pittsburgh last October)? These are all important unknowns and I am sure US law enforcement officials are doing what they can to get answers.

The lesson here of course, which has zero chance of having any impact on how we report news, is that we need to be patient. Jumping to conclusions – engaging in the ‘instant analysis’ I cited above – can lead at a minimum to looking foolish and in the worst case scenario to providing those with a chip on their shoulder to take the law into their own hands and punish those responsible based on who they think (or want to think) those are.

I try to be circumspect in my comments on occasions such as these. Others are not so careful. I don’t claim to have any special powers of analysis but I really wish more people would be a little more modest in what they think they know. Lives could depend on it.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply