December 8, 2019

Fears After El Al

Shortly after Sept. 11, I spent an evening with an imam from a local mosque.

A member of my synagogue had arranged the dinner, and she was anxious about how it would go.

"Is it a good idea?" my friend asked. "I’m afraid we don’t even want to know each other."

It was a great idea. As the July 4 murders at the El Al counter at Los Angeles International Airport indicate, it’s no longer a matter of wanting to know each other. We must know each other, as accurately as possible. If you can’t invite your local imam into your living room, then go down to your local mosque, yourself, and bring a group from your synagogue with you.

I remember the evening well, as a cautious handshake filled with good intent. The imam decried suicide bombers and said they were against his Muslim faith. You could feel the man cry for distortions of his belief, for which he must now endlessly apologize.

I asked him how his mosque regarded Israel, and on this, too, he conceded with candid regret that the majority was probably against the Jewish state. After dinner, he gave a bit of his biography, careful to show that he was not isolated; he had not spent his life talking only to members of his faith. As I recall, he had been raised with many Christians and considered himself at home in the world.

But just how at home could he be? As his presentation was ending, he dramatically left the room and returned, dressed in Muslim headpiece, a la Yasser Arafat.

"Are you afraid of me now?" he asked.

I was ashamed by the question, which had to be asked. I have thought about it ever since. He clearly assumed that in wearing his religious garb, he would invite terror among neighbors and friends. We could know him only up to a point, he believed, so long as he didn’t show us who he truly was.

I thought of the imam again this week, while reading of Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, the airport killer. As we all must know by now, the Egyptian-born Hadayet, a taxi driver from Irvine, came to LAX armed with two guns and a hunting knife and the intent to kill people. After his spree, Hadayet and two others were dead, including an El Al employee, Victoria Hen, 25. Also dead was Jacob Aminov, whose wife was pregnant with their sixth child, who had driven a friend to the Bradley Terminal. Hadayet was killed by an El Al security guard.

Journalists are trying to figure out motive: had Hadayet cracked? Had his Egyptian-born wife, who had called police on domestic violence charges years ago, left him permanently? Had his limo business gone under?

But this is more than a standard crime, or even a typical multiple murder. In an era of secret terror cells and private demons, I wonder, how much of Hadayet can we ever know?

In today’s overheated political environment, personal facts may explain only so much. National, religious and political ideology amplify the stresses of daily lives, like a magnifying glass on paper.

The LAX murders may be the first high-profile multinational crime post-Sept. 11, in which terrorism gets dumped into the bag of motivations.

Terrorism mocks at the basic assumptions of a free, tolerant society. We believe that the bracing tonic of democracy can undermine ancient hates and usher in peace.

As horrific as the murders were, it seemed naive of George Bush to refuse to even consider the possibility that there was something different about choosing El Al rather than, say, Disneyland as the Egyptian’s target. Bush so fears fear itself, that he cannot prepare the public for the possibility that what we fear may be real. No, he declared too quickly, no terrorism here, just a man acting alone.

Bush is using an old dictionary. Only two years ago, the British Terrorism Act of 2000 defined terrorism by motive: "The use or threat of action to influence a government or intimidate the public for a political, religious or ideological cause." If you didn’t know the goal, you couldn’t judge the act.

But today’s terrorists leave no diary, just a society quaking in its boots. The European Union accepts this problem by proposing an updated law defining terrorism not by motive, but by effect: a deliberate attack with the aim of intimidating people and damaging or destroying their political, economic or social structures.

With Hadayet dead, his motive may never be known. But the shootout at LAX sure intimidates us with the question: "Are you afraid of me now?"