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Take Out Your Red Pens

The New York Times has an interesting story about how the State Department missed the bus on Tashfeen Malik’s Islamist and anti-American social-media posts during her immigration background check. Though we aren’t permitted to read directly what she said on social media, she was apparently quite open in her endorsement of “violent Jihad.” The Times reports that:

Had the authorities found the posts years ago, they might have kept her out of the country. But immigration officials do not routinely review social media as part of their background checks, and there is a debate inside the Department of Homeland Security over whether it is even appropriate to do so.

We don’t get much of an explanation of what exactly “appropriate” means, only that the topic is being debated by government officials. It’s almost as if the Times is scared to actually report the interesting facts — what the posts said, why the government ignores them and may want to keep ignoring them, etc. for fear of what people might do with the facts.

Then there’s this ending:

In a brief telephone interview on Saturday, the sister, Fehda Malik, said Tashfeen Malik was not an extremist, and she rejected the allegations against her sister.

“I am the one who spent most of the time with my sister,” she said. “No one knows her more than me. She had no contact with any militant organization or person, male or female.”

She said her sister was religious, studied the Quran and prayed five times a day. “She knew what was right and what was wrong,” Fehda Malik said. She added that the family was “very worried and tense,” before hanging up the phone.

On social media, Fehda Malik has made provocative comments of her own. In 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, she posted a remark on Facebook beside a photo of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center that could be interpreted as anti-American.

Social media comments, by themselves, however, are not always definitive evidence. In Pakistan — as in the United States — there is no shortage of crass and inflammatory language. And it is often difficult to distinguish Islamist sentiments and those driven by political hostility toward the United States. At the time Fehda Malik’s comment was posted, anti-American sentiment in Pakistan was particularly high; four months earlier, American commandos had secretly entered Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden.

I’ve reread this last bit a bunch of times. I can’t quite figure out what the authors and editors think is going on here. The sister, Fehda, denies that Tashfeen is a radical Islamist. She spent a lot of time with her sister apparently. Weighing against Fehda’s character reference? Tashfeen’s Facebook posts, including the one in which she pledged loyalty to ISIS, not to mention the bodies of 14 dead Americans (and a good deal more wounded). So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Fehda’s word doesn’t count for very much.

This is a suspicion the authors themselves seem to corroborate, given that they found a post of hers on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that “could be interpreted as anti-American.” Again, we’re not allowed to see the actual comment, but given that it accompanied a picture of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, and the way the Times phrased all of this, I’m guessing that the proper way to read “could be interpreted” is “only a blithering idiot would disagree” that it was anti-American.

But wait. It gets odder. The Times chooses to end this story with a caution not to read too much into ugly posts on social media by people asking for the privilege — not the right — to move here. After all, “it is often difficult to distinguish Islamist sentiments and those driven by political hostility toward the United States. At the time Fehda Malik’s comment was posted, anti-American sentiment in Pakistan was particularly high; four months earlier, American commandos had secretly entered Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden.”

Wait. What? I gather they are saying that anti-Americanism and Islamism are different, but occasionally overlapping things. Fair enough. But they also seem to be saying we shouldn’t much care about taking in immigrants who merely hate America on political grounds. That’s weird.

Even more weird is their example of potentially non-Islamist but still anti-American sentiment: Fehda’s outrage over the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Are we supposed to be relieved?  “Oh, she’s not an Islamist, she’s just furious we killed Bin Laden for nationalistic reasons.”

So, to sum up: It may be inappropriate to put too much stock in social-media posts because some would-be immigrants just hate America for conventional non-Islamist reasons. After all, the woman who insists her mass-murdering Islamist sister isn’t a radical has posted anti-American screeds out of outrage that the U.S. killed an Islamist terrorist mastermind on Pakistani soil. These distinctions really are complicated, I guess. Better government officials just ignore it all. 

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