In the Boston area yesterday, the FBI and Boston Police Department (BPD) shot and killed a 26-year-old black Muslim man, Usaamah Abdullah Rahim, after they stopped him at a bus stop at 7:00 a.m. in front of a CVS drug store in order to question him. Media reports originally claimed that Rahim wielded a “machete” after he was approached by the agents. But after photos emerged showing how laughable that description was, the weapon was changed in subsequent reports to a “military-style black knife” — not just any knife, but a black one.
Literally within hours of the killing, both the Boston and national media had uncritically published multiple, wholly uncorroborated accusations about Rahim based solely on the claims of the law enforcement agencies that had just killed him. Some law enforcement officials were even granted anonymity by these journalists in order to smear their victim. Rahim was almost instantly convicted by the media of being a dangerous terrorist preparing to carry out an ISIS-inspired attack.
The smearing party was started by a local TV reporter, Cheryl Fiandaca, who bills herself as an “investigative reporter” for Channel 7 News. Here’s how she “investigates” and “reports”:
Prior to joining Channel 7 News last year, guess what Fiandaca’s job was? She was the official spokeswoman for the Boston Police Department, and is also the ex-wife of former Boston Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. Now, in the immediate aftermath of the fatal shooting by her former employers, she’s giving anonymity to “sources” to smear Rahim as “radicalized by #ISIS social media” — whatever that means — and as someone who “may have been planning to attack police.”
The national media predictably joined in the fun. Leading the descent into hysteria and recklessness was, as usual, CNN, which all but depicted the shooting as necessary for fending off an ISIS invasion of the homeland:
NBC Nightly News led its broadcast with this story, and the video featuring a hysterical Lester Holt and Pete Williams has to be seen to be believed. “Good evening,” said the anchor. “We start here tonight with a deadly confrontation outside Boston between law enforcement and a man they feared might be preparing to launch an ISIS-inspired attack.” Even after killing the “terror suspect,” Holt intoned that agents are “still on the move in the Boston area, trying to piece together what he may have been involved with, and whether others might be connected to it.”
The story then narrated by Williams is told from the perspective of the FBI and the BPD. We learn that unnamed officials told NBC News they “were concerned Rahim had become radicalized by ISIS-inspired social media, and was actively considering an attack on police officers in Boston within the next few days, in a city still traumatized by the terrorist bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon.” The agents approached him “fearing he was preparing to take action soon.” Police are now investigating others Rahim was “in touch with who might also have been radicalized by ISIS-inspired propaganda.” Officials, Williams announced at the end of his report, “believe they disrupted a potential terror plot, but now they’re detaining other people for questioning … to see whether anyone else was involved in his plot, or whether attacks are planned.”
So just like that, major American media outlets converted someone about whom they knew nothing into a dangerous terrorist in the middle of executing an ISIS-related terror plot. And the heroic law enforcement officials didn’t just kill an ISIS Terrorist on the loose in America, but likely disrupted a vicious sleeper cell. All of that was achieved without a shred of evidence or investigation: just mindlessly repeating the self-justifying claims of the police agents who had just killed him.
Even the police’s version of events, if believed, raises all sorts of questions. They say Rahim was under “24-hour surveillance” by the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, and were monitoring him for at least two years. When they approached him, they had no arrest or search warrant, but instead simply wanted to question him. When they did so, he pulled out his knife, and when he refused to put it away and walked toward them, they shot and killed him.
There are numerous questions raised by all of this. If Rahim was so dangerous, why didn’t the constant surveillance result in any charges? If — as the media spent all day claiming — he was on the verge of executing a horrific terror attack, why didn’t law enforcement agents have an arrest warrant or even search warrant? What was their intention in approaching him this way? Were they wearing uniforms, and — supposedly believing he was an ISIS operative eager to kill police — did they do anything to make him feel threatened?
Virtually none of those questions were examined by media discussions yesterday. Most (including the NBC report) did note that Rahim’s brother, a former Boston-area imam whom the Boston Globe said “is known as a voice of moderation and compassion,” claimed Rahim was on the phone with his father when killed by three bullets to the back, though quickly stated that police insist he was killed by two bullets to the abdomen and chest. What actually happened is unclear, and will presumably be clarified by video which police say exists.
Whatever the truth about the shooting itself turns out to be, think about what happened here. A black Muslim man charged with no crime was standing at a bus stop when approached by the FBI and BPD, who had no warrant to arrest him. Within minutes, he was dead. And literally within hours, he was universally vilified in the American media — with zero evidence — as an ISIS-inspired terrorist in the midst of a plot potentially involving multiple unnamed “others,” all based on nothing more than police accusations.
As rampant, unjustified police killings have finally entered mainstream discussion, this has become a favored joint tactic of the police and media. Before the killing can be processed by the public, the victim’s character is smeared by media-laundered police claims, often anonymously. Here, the tactic had the sweetened appeal that it could be used to fearmonger over an ISIS attack in the U.S., as Rahim was not only black but also Muslim. As my colleague Murtaza Hussain put it: “14 years after 9/11 law enforcement can kill someone in the street, suggest they were part of a ‘terror network’, and media will just move on.” He added: “Apparently all you have to do to defuse outrage over killing someone is apply the gangster or terrorist label to the still-warm dead body.”
The point here is not that the police claims are untrue. The point is that nobody knows if they are true or not. Yet they were aggressively and uncritically amplified by an always pro-police media, resulting in the vilification of the dead victim as an ISIS-linked terror operative within hours after his death. Precisely as intended, that, in turn, precluded any rational discussion of whether the killing was justified.
Photo: Mark Garfinkel/Associated Press