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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Nothing more spectacular about him

The BBC has a profile on Omar El-Hussein, the man who carried out Saturday's killings in Copenhagen. He apparently was assisted by two other men, who have since been taken in police custody. They were charged with providing El-Hussein with weapons and helping him escape after the attacks.

We know El-Hussein was not an immigrant-- he was a native Dane. He first attacked a gathering of people discussing free speech and blasphemy, and then a synagogue, in what looks like a clear attempt to emulate the Charlie Hebdo masscre in Paris in January (Charlie Hebdo offices in that case and then kosher market). Lars Vilks told the AP that he believed the Charlie Hebdo attacks "inspired" the shootings in Copenhagen.

According to the BBC, El-Hussein had in fact just been out of prison for two weeks before Saturday's attacks. He sounds like a rabble-rouser and anti-Semite:
El-Hussein told psychologists he had a happy childhood and a good relationship with his parents and younger brother, according to a report obtained by Danish broadcaster TV2, but he failed to graduate from school or win a place at university. 
Classmates who spoke to the Ekstra Bladet newspaper (in Danish) remembered a loner with a hot temper who loved to discuss Islam and the Israel-Palestine conflict. He was not afraid to voice a hatred of Jews, said one. 
As a young man he was a criminal rather than a radical - reportedly arrested twice for possession of cannabis but let off with a warning. 
He took up kickboxing and began to smoke cannabis heavily. He was arrested once in a Copenhagen nightclub with a knife, and another time with brass knuckles - earning him a night in custody, according to Ekstra Bladet. 
But things took a much more serious turn in November 2013 when El-Hussein stabbed a 19-year-old man on a subway train. He evaded capture but was arrested by chance two months later in connection with a burglary, the Politiken newspaper reported (in Danish). 
He escaped an attempted murder charge, convicted instead of grievous bodily harm and sentenced to two years in prison. 
I'm sure the response by many Americans to this would be that El-Hussein just didn't sit in prison for long enough, but short prison sentences (compared to in America, that is) are normal in Denmark, and it has worked out pretty well for the country so far.

Rather, some people are arguing that the problem-- at least, I hasten to say, concerning last weekend's killings-- may have been that he went to prison at all:
Prison guards in Denmark fear Hussein, 22, was the latest case of prison radicalization — in which criminals become devotees of militant Islam. 
Union leader Kim Østerbye said that Hussein had been housed in Copenhagen's Vestre Fængsel alongside extremists including convicted terrorist Said Mansor, who had previously tried to radicalize other inmates. 
He said many young Muslim inmates at the facility were openly anti-Semitic and cheered in happiness at news of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January. He said they often chanted and called for the execution of cartoonists who depict the Prophet Muhammad. 
The prison service would not comment on the claims when contacted by NBC News. 
A reporter who covered Hussein's assault trial told NBC News that the young man had seemed liked "just a hardened criminal" rather than an Islamist extremist before going to prison. 
"Omar, at the trial, didn't seem religious at all. Almost the opposite," Jesper Braarud Larsen said earlier this week. "He just seemed like a callous, hardened criminal … nothing more spectacular about him."
Interesting phrasing there, when "religious" in this case means "interprets his Muslim faith to justify murdering Jews and blasphemers." That isn't the opposite of being a callous, hardened criminal at all, is it? That's being a callous, hardened criminal whose choices of worthy targets of crime have shifted to focus on perceived enemies of religion.

Or maybe it wasn't that much of a shift? The passion for Islam was already there. The anti-Semitism was already there. I can't seem to find any further details about the identify of the 19 year old man El-Hussein was imprisoned for stabbing, but if he had also been a blasphemer or Jewish (or both) it wouldn't exactly be incongruous with either El-Hussein's previous character or his post-imprisonment terrorism.

It's tempting to say that Larsen, the reporter, was valorizing religion-- claiming that religious people are somehow by definition not criminals-- but I think it's more likely he meant that they are not petty criminals. That "spectacular" Islamist extremists are a fundamentally different sort of person than thuggish pot smokers who carry brass knuckles to clubs.

I'm afraid-- really, this thought frightens me-- that they're not. That's the banality of evil for you.

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