Alleged Bomb Plot Stirs Soul-Searching in Portland

PORTLAND, Ore. — For those of us accustomed to walking past Pioneer Courthouse Square every day, right in the middle of cheerful, quirky, out-of-the-way Portland, it’s an image that’s hard to fathom: Thousands of people crowding the square for the annual lighting of the towering Christmas tree. Excited little kids. A sudden, massive blast. Bodies shredded and burned. Chaos, blood, sirens, screaming, crying.

This is the mental picture that has been confronting us with surreal immediacy since news broke just more than a week ago about the unsuccessful bomb plot of a local college student who had drunk the jihad elixir and made the crazy, inexplicable, unconscionable and ultimately sad decision to become a homegrown terrorist.

Anger, fear, contempt — these are understandable emotions when people learn of a would-be act of terrorism at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in their own downtown. I’ve gone through those, and a fair bit of sadness, too — sadness that a kid from our community would allegedly want to smash a happy scene to a million bits, sadness that no one set him straight, and sadness that my Muslim friends are feeling even more under the gun than before.

In the understandable rush to make sense of the nonsensical, people grasp for their ideologies: The Muslims are out to get us! Law enforcement has it in for minorities! What emerges for me is no rallying cry but some emphatic words of caution. Let’s be careful about picking our scapegoats and leaping to our favorite over-generalizations. And, especially, let’s choose responses that don’t hurt an already-bad situation.

Here? Really?

For several good reasons, many of us Portlanders are having a hard time wrapping our minds around the horrific thought of a 19-year-old from the local suburbs wanting to kill and destroy. Why would Portland, of all places, be the site of a terror attack?

The “People’s Republic of Portland” — so dubbed for its liberal ways — seems so utterly different from New York, Mumbai, London, or the other places that one associates with terrorist attacks. Portland is so much smaller, light years from the figurative front lines. This is a laid-back city where the red-hot rhetoric around terrorism, Islam, the “ground zero mosque,” and the like runs cooler. It’s a place where a live-and-let-live spirit extends ample latitude to anyone who might otherwise stand out — whether it’s for wearing a Santa hat and pedaling around on a unicycle playing bagpipes (which my wife actually witnessed last year), covering every inch of your arm with tattoos, or wearing a head scarf and praying at a mosque rather than a church or synagogue.

That image resonated strongly with comments my brother-in-law posted on Facebook right after the news broke, just a day or two after he had returned to New Jersey after visiting for Thanksgiving. His first thought, like mine: Portland? Really? He went on to voice deep regret about a situation in which a disturbed young man receives not constructive intervention from adults in his life, but instead is given the means — the feigned means, as it turns out — to put his destructive thought into action.

No doubt, appreciation is owed to the FBI agents, and law enforcement in general, for their efforts to stop terrorism. I am glad that they are working diligently to keep real bombs from going off at Pioneer Courthouse Square or any other place. Thank you.

Also churning in my head is regret over the stress that the incident is causing for our Portland-area Muslim community. The suspect, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, ” ruined it for everybody,” is how one Somalian man, Ahmed Ali, put it in comments to The Oregonian newspaper. “Our religion says we cannot kill innocent people. This is the reason we left Somalia.”

Ali was talking about the Somalian community, but his comments applied just as well to the Muslim community as a whole. In the week following revelations of the plot, local Muslim leaders rushed to counter charges that now there was proof — more proof! — that Islam is inherently violent and evil. Off went the news releases and e-mails to news media people citing key verses from the Quran stressing the imperative for Muslims to live in peace with their neighbors. And, with that, the sharp condemnations of the attempted act of terrorism. (Don’t let anyone tell you the Muslim community has yet to condemn terrorism.) This is a community whose bridge-building work is well-known to me as one who has accepted its members’ invitations to join them at potluck dinners and lectures by visiting Islamic scholars, moderate the occasional panel, and observe Friday prayers at an area mosque. It’s been heart-warming to see how much an embattled, minority-religion community appreciates friendship and support from someone in the privileged mainstream.

I felt for these friends last week when I heard about a retaliatory arson incident at the Corvallis Islamic center where Mohamud occasionally prayed while at college, and the scattered reports of Muslims being harassed on the streets — generally women, whose head scarves make them easy marks. These acts of idiocy only make a bad situation worse. I hope area Muslims are finding some comfort in the kindness of the people who dropped off cards and flowers at the Corvallis mosque and gathered in the rain for a candlelight vigil at the site.

Where to direct our anger

You could pick many labels for the alleged bomber wannabe. It’s true that he’s a Somali and Muslim, but far more pertinent are certain other categories in which he has apparently placed himself: extremist, radical jihadist, terrorist. If we’re going to make sweeping, damning generalizations, let’s make these the subject of our condemnations. Let’s make these the focus of our efforts to isolate and defeat an enemy.

Things inched closer and closer to normal in the week after revelations of the attempted “Christmas tree bombing,” as some have dubbed it. The Oregonian headlines started dying down. Local attention swung toward the huge “Civil War” college football game between Oregon and Oregon State. Tents for the holiday micro-ale festival took over the entire block of Pioneer Courthouse Square.

But the dent in our consciousness isn’t easily repaired. We’ve just been hit with a disturbing demonstration of the kind of world we have right now — one where a young man could decide that he loved the thought of killing and maiming large numbers of innocent people and, in attempting to follow it through, would accomplish nothing more than making things a whole lot harder for his fellow Muslims.

That’s just sad.

Tom Krattenmaker, a writer specializing in religion in public life, is a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors. His book Onward Christian Athletes was published last fall.