TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Road Rage and Jihad in San Francisco:Toward a Psychology of Terror

On Tuesday, August 29, a motorist from Fremont, California, Omeed Aziz Popal, identified in the press as an Afghan, struck and killed a pedestrian near his home, before driving to San Francisco where he went on rampage: targeting pedestrians both on sidewalks and in the streets, he wounded at least fourteen, leaving some in critical condition. However this carnage would simply be a sad story of local road rage, except for the distorted character of the reporting and the related discussion, which shed important light on the predispositions of the press and the official public sphere.

Initial references to Popal’s ethnicity and Muslim religion came from family members, who attributed his disturbed mental state to his recent arranged marriage. Yet this ethnic identification quickly disappeared; a press fearful of accusations of ethnic profiling is simply willing and anxious to avoid the topic. Yet because the press cannot discuss Popal’s ethnicity, it also cannot address another glaring fact: his path of terror culminated in a brutal ride on the sidewalk in front of the recently constructed Jewish Community Center. Why the Jewish Community Center? I have no privy information as to Popal’s intentions, but I can certainly see that the press and prominent politicians are avoiding the question, in order to suppress the possibility that a Muslim man set out on a bloody rampage with an intention to target the vicinity he might have reasonably identified as heavily Jewish.

Evidence: the San Francisco Chronicle begins its account by stating emphatically that “Twenty-nine-year-old Omeed Aziz Popal did not care about age, race or sex as he purposefully plowed down pedestrians in an unexplained hit-and-run rampage Tuesday, according to authorities.” Exactly how staff writer Adam Martin or the “authorities” know what Popal did or did not care about is not clear. The point of the article is presumably the diversity of the victims: Popal was an equal-opportunity killer, a poster child for non-discrimination. Mayor Gavin Newsome has also assured the public that the victims were randomly chosen—and they probably were, considered one by one. Popal targeted whomever he could find, taking aim at people in crosswalks, for example. The point however is the neighborhood in which he chose to carry out his attacks. The question which the press refuses to pose is why he chose to drive nearly forty miles from Fremont into San Francisco, and then drove directly to an area between a major synagogue and the prominent Jewish Community Center. His itinerary took him past many other urban areas—Hayward, Oakland or Berkeley, or he might have crossed the Bay to Palo Alto or Redwood City, all of which would have been much closer to Fremont with their own “target rich environments.” Instead he seems to have driven intentionally to San Francisco—but when he arrived there, he avoided the immediate targets, the downtown or Mission areas, where he might have found dense crowds, and curiously drove to a fairly out-of-the-way district, where he eventually started mowing down his victims.

This blog is not a police watch, so the intention here is not to solve the crime; the point is rather to take note of the extent to which the official public sphere runs away from ethnic identification, which then makes it impossible to raise questions about a hypothetical ethnic agenda. Did Popal drive forty miles to get to this area in particular? One wonders what it would take to get the press to ask whether anti-Semitism or Islamic radicalism might be at stake, since similar events have taken place in other cities—such as when a jeep was driven into a crowd of students at the University of North Carolina. In San Francisco, the press has paid more attention to the model of the car than to more obviously political matters: as if it were more likely to explain the event as an attack by a killer SUV than to reference Islamic anti-Semitism.

The alternative account that has emerged has to do with Popal’s allegedly agitated mental state. The press seems to be settling on the story that he was deranged and therefore not a terrorist. Aside from any further consideration of Popal, this explicit distinction between derangement and (presumably, by implication, rational) terrorism is worth pondering. In this case, the psychological account quite obviously provides an alibi with which to avoid the more unsettling recognition of the proximity of interethnic violence and clash of civilizations. Yet does this mean we should avoid any theoretical speculation on the nature of the psychology of terrorism? To be sure, there are pitfalls. Psychologizing terrorism might be the start down a slippery slope toward the pathologization of political opponents, as in the Soviet Union. Alternatively, the psychological approach, followed consistently, might end up with the same bureaucratic managerial solution in favor in the US for the treatment of unruly schoolchildren: medication—as if the problem of disaffected Muslim immigrants (typically in Europe more than the US, to date at least) could be solved with prescriptions of Ritalin. Not a useful paradigm at all.

While neither of these speculative outcomes is useful, there are nevertheless important reasons to consider the psychological dimension of terrorism: the rage, the loveless disregard for human life, surely the anxieties around sexuality and emancipation, which may be the real fons et origo malorum in Islamic extremism: better to die a suicide bomber than to submit to the regime of gender equality. This does not prove positively that Popal is a terrorist (although some news accounts indicate that he identified himself with that term) in the sense of belonging to a conspiratorial organization. But it does suggest that there are perhaps some fundamental psychological predispositions that pertain to Popal as much as they did to Mohammed Atta. The public sphere is so anxious to find simplistic and rational motives for crimes that it avoids these psychological complexities. Crime, madness, terror: the three categories overlap in important ways. The response to terrorism will only succeed if we get beyond imputing a one-dimensional rationality to the terrorists, as if every act were calculated with reference to some clear political goal. Terrorism is about anger and anxiety, but it is also about a deep desire to cause pain and death: sadism toward pedestrians in San Francisco or toward office workers in Lower Manhattan.

Comments are closed.