Last week Paul Schrum, a Jewish salesman in his sixties, was murdered while watching X-Men: The Last Stand in Owings Mills, Maryland. According to Nick Shields and Josh Mitchell of the Baltimore Sun, the killer stood up about 20 minutes into the movie, "told everyone to get on the floor and fired four shots. The man then walked to the lobby, placed a handgun containing one unspent round on a counter and told theater management that he had shot someone. He waited for police to arrive."
Was it just a random moment of violence, or was it an act of jihad? The shooter is called Mujtaba Rabbani Jabbar—not a name that suggests Buddhism or Scientology—and Owings Mills is a heavily Jewish suburb. Ordinarily that would be enough to set off a flurry of speculation in the jihadi-hunting neighborhoods of the Web, but as I write it hasn't made much of a splash: The story has been posted on the conservative site Free Republic and has surfaced in a comments thread at the Muslim-baiting blog Little Green Footballs, but it hasn't dominated the discussion like the El Al shootings at Los Angeles International Airport in July 2002, or the attempt this year in North Carolina to commit mass murder with a Jeep Cherokee, or even the long-forgotten theory that the D.C. snipers were working for Osama bin Laden.
The last time a bunch of people accused an American of being a domestic terrorist—when a student at the University of Oklahoma blew himself up last October—their theory imploded soon afterwards. So perhaps they're being a little more skeptical this time around. Or maybe it's merely the fact that the news came out on the weekend; by the time this column is published the story may have erupted into a full-fledged frenzy. But even if that happens, I don't think the excitement will last long. This just isn't the sort of case that inspires widespread fear. Terrible as this murder was, it obviously was the act of one man acting alone, and that man is now in police custody. He didn't even try to kill more than one person. It's hard to hear an echo of 9/11 in a crime that doesn't rise to the level of Columbine.
On top of that, there's already at least one rival narrative, offered by the killer's family: that Jabbar was "mentally ill." His sister said in a statement that "our family tried our best to get him the treatment, but he refused." The details of the alleged illness were left vague, and the Sun's Rona Marech reports that it "was never diagnosed."
Meanwhile, the murderer turns out to have a website. I'd love to report that it fits one of the obvious narratives—that it shows clear signs of anti-Semitism, mental impairment, or some other easy explanation for the attack. But all it advertises is Jabbar's "editorial services," and all it exudes is laziness and poor Web design. An earlier version of the page offers a quiz instead: "What should I do with my website?" As of November 24, 2003, "Porn Site" was edging out "Religious Site," 100 votes to 70—but then the porn option disappears. Despite that, the only religious content I can find is a few posts on the guestbook. The most haunting comment was written by one Mujtaba Sharif: "The word 'mujtaba' has a literal meaning of 'the chosen one'. And that's because it was the name of our Holy Prophet(PBUH)… May all of be chosen to do some good and divine deed."
Pundits have endlessly debated whether incidents like this, the El Al shootings, and so on qualify as "terrorism." If this murder was politically motivated—and obviously it's too early to assume that it is—I don't have any problem calling the killer a terrorist. It would be a particularly pathetic sort of terrorism, though: a kind that inspires grief but little actual terror.
Acts like this, the argument goes, represent "leaderless resistance," a mode of asymmetrical warfare in which the fighters act without any coordination at all; it is not a conspiracy, or even necessarily a network, in the ordinary senses of those words. This is a fine thing to fear if there are a lot of willing assassins out there, and I could see it stoking anxieties in Amsterdam or Jerusalem—but in America? A few sporadic crimes, none of them inspiring a wave of copycats; a campaign whose body count over several years could be dwarfed by just one night of gang warfare; a would-be soldier who's willing to slay one man then turn himself in—this isn't a sequel to 9/11, it's a short-lived spinoff that never made it past the pilot. These attacks are so rare, they if anything highlight how unwilling American Muslims are to kill for Allah. If this country were swimming with volunteer fifth-columnists, we would have seen a lot more mayhem by now.
It hardly matters whether isolated murderers are driven by their interpretation of the Koran, by some deficiency in their brains, or by any other explanation for their deeds. You can deal with them the way you deal with any other solitary criminals. There is real danger in an organized network of terrorists, and there is real danger in a substantial subculture willing to engage in unorganized terror. But attacks like the hit-and-run in North Carolina, the airport shootings in L.A., and this maybe-Muslim murder fit neither category. Bloody and evil as they are, their chief effect is to make jihad seem mundane.