Politics & Policy

Bigots and Terrorists in Portland

The city’s liberal establishment worries more about biased Americans than about would-be mass murderers.

Portland — On the night of November 26, a 19-year-old Oregon State University engineering student named Mohamed Mohamud drove a van packed with what he believed to be explosives to Pioneer Courthouse Square, a downtown plaza known to locals as “Portland’s Living Room.” There, thousands of residents had gathered to light Portland’s Christmas tree as part of an annual holiday celebration.

Fortunately, the bomb Mohamud carried was a dummy: The supposed jihadist sympathizers from whom he had procured the weapon were in fact undercover FBI agents. When he tried to detonate the bomb, Mohamud was promptly arrested and charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.

Many Portlanders like to see their city as a place somewhat apart from the rest of America: a “greener,” more tolerant, more progressive burg, a city untouched by some of the uglier trends in global politics. Indeed, Portland withdrew from the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force some five years ago over civil-liberties concerns. Thus, the revelation that Portland was the target of a murderous jihadi has come as a profound shock to many residents.

Yet perhaps equally shocking has been the reaction of Portland’s ruling liberal establishment to this attempted mass murder.

It began the morning after Mohamud’s plot unraveled, when Portland’s mayor, Sam Adams, took to his blog to issue a stern warning to the citizens he governs. “I trust in Portlanders’ sense of fairness,” he wrote, before demonstrating the exact opposite. “Bad actions by one member of any group does [sic] not and should not be generalized or applied more widely to other members of that same group,” he lectured. “Otherwise, as part of the biggest racial group in Portland, European-Americans, producing many crimes daily, would be in deep trouble.” A day later, Adams fretted publicly about the danger of “knuckle-headed retribution.”

But it was not only Portland’s mayor who focused more on Oregonians’ supposed bigotry than on the fact that a terrorist had tried to murder thousands. Elisabeth Gern, a social-services coordinator at Catholic Charities, said publicly that she thought Somalis would be “attacked.” The Willamette Week, a Pulitzer Prize–winning Portland-based newspaper, worried about the “disconcerting effect on the Somali community.” Imam Mikal Shabazz, the president of the Oregon Islamic Chaplains Organization and Portland’s most prominent Muslim spokesman, said that “innocent Muslim-Americans are exposed to retaliation.”

Yet there has been only one apparently anti-Muslim crime: A fire was set in the middle of the night in the office of a mosque where Mohamud sometimes prayed as a student. (The FBI is investigating this act of vandalism and offering a cash reward for assistance.) Otherwise, Oregonians have shown marked support for the Muslim and Somali communities here. Hundreds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists marched in solidarity with Oregon’s Islamic community after the mosque was vandalized. Hundreds more held a vigil on the campus of Oregon State University to show support for Muslim students there in the wake of Mohamud’s arrest. So far, despite the histrionics, this has proved to be the backlash that wasn’t.

Other political and media elites here have taken to attacking the terror sting operation, the very foundation of the case against Mohamud. In the Portland Mercury, a popular weekly newspaper, journalist Denis C. Theriault asked, “Is it really a terrorist plot if no one was ever in danger and the men you’re plotting with — the handlers giving you cash, driving you around, and even building your bomb — are all (whoops!) government agents?” (The article was headlined “No One Was Going to Die.”) On a blog on the paper’s website, the same writer said that “we have to wonder how else [terror stings] might be used — and what other kinds of crimes government agents will be asked to encourage Americans to try to commit before arresting them.” Pat Birmingham, a prominent local defense attorney, said, “There’s a big question whether he had the mental makeup to do it on his own.” This line of argument has been picked up by some in the national media, most notably Glenn Greenwald of Salon.

Of course, the question of whether the FBI’s involvement crossed the line of entrapment will need to be examined during the trial. Yet arguments like the Mercury’s veer too far into the territory of exonerating the perpetrator.

According to the FBI’s affidavit on the case, Mohamud was once cautioned by an undercover agent that “a lot of children” would be attending the Christmas-tree lighting. “Yeah, I mean, that’s what I’m looking for,” he replied. Regardless of whether his bomb went off, Mohamud wanted to kill thousands.

But when faced with this man, the city’s liberal establishment worried mainly about vilifying Oregonians and perhaps exculpating the would-be bomber. Portland’s public officials and media figures do its residents a disservice by acting this way, especially now that it’s clear the city is not immune to the threat of terrorism.

Ethan Epstein, a writer based in Portland, has written for the Weekly Standard, Slate, the American Spectator, and a variety of other publications.


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