New Details Emerge About Texas Gunmen, Adding Fuel to Free-Speech Debate

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FBI investigators work a crime scene outside of the Curtis Culwell Center after a shooting occurred the day before on May 04, 2015 in Garland, Texas. Photo: Ben Torres/Getty Images

More details are emerging about the identities and motives of the two gunmen killed by police on Sunday night when they opened fire outside a Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. In addition to 30-year-old Elton Simpson, authorities have now identified the other shooter as his roommate, 34-year-old Nadir Soofi, and federal agents have since raided their apartment in Phoenix, Arizona. While Simpson’s decade-long jihadi aspirations were already well known to the FBI, his partner’s worst criminal offense was being a deadbeat dad. Otherwise, all that is currently known about Soofi was that he was a former pre-med student who often commented about Middle East politics on social media. Both men had been regulars at a Phoenix-area mosque, but the AP reports that Simpson had stopped attending over the last few months, and that so far at least, no one who knew the men, including Soofi’s mother, suspected they were capable of such a violent act.

Internet evidence is telling a different story, however. While the FBI has yet to directly link the two men’s attack to any foreign terrorist group, it is believed that one of the men operated a Twitter account with ISIS-affiliated connections. Furthermore, jihadist-tracker J.M. Berger and Minneapolis CBS affiliate WCCO have determined that the attack seems to have been encouraged online by a well-known American extremist known as Mujahid Miski, who left Minnesota in 2008 to join the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab and has since become an active recruiter for ISIS via Facebook and Twitter. WCCO additionally reports that over the past few weeks Miski, “an online celebrity in the world of Jihad,” has been trying to use the unrest over Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore to inspire more Americans to join ISIS.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. the attack has led to a raging debate about the boundaries of free speech, with many drawing a parallel between what happened in Texas and January’s Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, which also targeted cartoonists who drew the Prophet Muhammad. This has riled up many commentators who see those who hosted the Texas event, particularly noted Islamophobe Pamela Geller, as hate-mongers rather than satirists. Quartz’s Dan Flanagin is one such person, calling Geller and event-speaker Geert Wilders “white supremacists” and suggesting they and the other participants are likely pleased with the extra attention the attack is affording their cause:

[Geller] loves to wax poetic on this supposed clash of civilizations. In the aftermath of the attack in Garland, she wasted little time posting much of the same nonsense to her blog: “This is a war,” she wrote. “This is war on free speech. What are we going to do? Are we going to surrender to these monsters?”

While Geller pretends to live a real-life version of Independence Day, the families of those killed in Paris are still picking up the pieces; their lives, families, and sense of security utterly shattered. They did not volunteer for this culture war. Geller and the [American Freedom Defense Initiative] unquestionably did. An although they were not asking for such violent retribution, they have certainly welcomed it in the aftermath. 

And with all the resulting attention now being paid Geller and her compatriots, Vox’s Max Fisher is worried that they’ll be inappropriately celebrated as free-speech champions from now on:

There’s a difference between an event that is protected by free speech and one that actually supports free speech. It is true that America’s broad free speech protections extend to anti-Muslim hate events; that does not make them “free speech events.” Elevating Geller and her cause to something they are not doesn’t just obfuscate this distinction; it legitimizes and spreads her group’s ideas, which are hateful, destructive, and dangerous.

He adds a further point of distinction between the Hebdo journalists and Geller:

Hebdo was often careful to distinguish its targeting of religious extremism from religion as a whole: Mohammed was often portrayed as a victim of Islamist extremists, and Hebdo staffers stressed that extremism rather than Islam itself was their target. This nuance was entirely absent from Geller’s event, which made clear that it saw no distinction between the tiny minority of violent Islamist extremists and the billion-plus peaceful Muslims worldwide.

Speaking on behalf of those Muslims is the Daily Beast’s Dean Obeidallah, who suggests that the best way to handle critics like Geller is to respect her free speech but ignore what she says:

Muslim-American leaders I spoke with outside of Texas universally defended Geller’s right to draw cartoons. For example, Linda Sarsour, a New York City Muslim community leader, explained to me that Geller can “draw any damn cartoon she wants and I defend her right to do so.  I have always fought for her right to be a bigot and I have the right to counter her bigotry with my own speech.” […]

The very essence of freedom of expression demands that we defend the broadcasting or publishing of images that we may not like or even find offensive.  That is how important freedom of expression to our nation and it is a principle that Muslim-Americans agree with wholeheartedly.

Also defending Geller’s rights, The New Republic‘s Jeet Heer argues that the “provocative nature of [Geller’s] many anti-Islamic comments in no way excuses the attacks on the exhibit,” though he also contends that subsequently buying into her rhetoric would help the Islamists reach their goals:

In the wake of Hebdo and Texas, the question becomes: Do we give Al Qaeda and ISIS what they want, this opposition between Muslims and non-Muslims? Pamela Geller deserves full free-speech protection, and yet she’s promoting the very polarization that radical jihadi groups are so eagerly working for through their violence. So while the state has no right to censor Geller, we have every right to reject her political message. And we should.

Dipping into more conservative views, the Washington Post‘s Eugene Volokh insists Geller has a point:

I think there is a special kind of exercise of free speech here: speech as defiance. The organizers are sending a message that they are not afraid, either of those who would condemn us or even of those who would kill us — at least not so afraid that they will forgo their First Amendment rights.

Harsh critics of Islam are often accused of “Islamophobia”; and while the suffix “-phobia” means “aversion to” as well as “fear of,” I think “-phobia” terms usually convey (and are often intended to convey) an allegation of irrational fear. Well, the critics say, our fear is actually quite rational; it makes sense to rationally fear dangerous ideologies.

Going even further, First Amendment attorney Marc J. Randazza sees the whole episode as proof that America’s political ideology is superior to that of the Islamists:

I have no quarrel with Islam (no more than any other religion). But with attacks such as the one we saw in Garland, it is being represented as one of the weakest philosophies on earth. No views are so sacred that they need not be challenged, and the challenged do not get to decide how the challenge comes at them. If it is insulting cartoons, or simply questioning the existence or wisdom of their prophet, living in an enlightened and free society means we tolerate that.

And for what it’s worth, a January Pew survey indicated that 60 percent of Americans don’t have a problem with Muhammad cartoons being published, either.