Only a day after the Madrid train bombings, we have folks blaming it on al-Qaeda without any hard evidence (at least, any that’s been discussed publicly). Instead, we have the press repeating past patterns of behavior as reasons why the ETA cannot be responsible and why al-Qaeda is the culprit.
This is irresponsible, regardless of who ultimately is found to be the guilty party, because we’ve learned that public perceptions are shaped powerfully by what they hear in the first press reports about an event. Those perceptions can then be used in service of someone’s agenda, regardless of facts. Part of the justification for our attack on Iraq was (initially) allegations of a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, evidence for which has been non-existent.
Let’s secure ourselves and our allies from terrorism, but let’s make sure we know who we’re fighting first. It’s irresponsible and incendiary to claim that one group or another “must” or “cannot” be responsible for the event, based not on hard forensic evidence but instead on “experts” discussing past patterns of behavior. A sample of the idiocy seen in the UPI article yesterday: “ETA has never in the past carried out multiple attacks.” On the other hand, “multiple targeting” is “the standard operating procedure of the fundamentalist Islamist movement,” according to the World Observatory of Terrorism. Thus, al-Qaeda is the more likely culprit.
Don’t misread me here – I believe those who perpetrated the train bombing must be identified, caught, and held accountable for their crime. The train bombings are deplorable – a hideous act of savagery perpetrated to make a point which will never be heard amidst the pain of the victims and the outrage of the “civilized” world.
But is what we’re reading evidence? As a hypothetical, let’s say a bank is robbed on a Thursday. Criminals A and B are both suspected by the police, because each has robbed banks before. A public statement is issued that the police have two suspects. Criminal A has robbed banks on Tuesday and Friday, but never Thursday. Criminal B has robbed banks on Monday and Thursday. Thus, the press discusses Criminal B as the “likely” bank robber simply because the time of the robbery fits the available history.
In a pure criminal case, we’d all call this “highly circumstantial” – at best, it’s a lead, not evidence. Perhaps Criminal A noticed their own pattern and adopted a different one to throw everyone off the track. Perhaps Criminal B did rob the bank. Without fingerprints, security camera tapes, and other “hard” evidence, all we have is speculation.
Law enforcement and anti-terrorism experts will undoubtedly start finding real evidence as investigation of the train bombing continues. Perhaps al-Qaeda is linked to this event, perhaps not. But let’s see evidence, not speculation. Speculation just gets us into trouble, since it can be used to push any agenda, without fear of contradiction.