In 2009, Najibullah Zazi sent three e-mails from his Aurora apartment to a suspected terrorist in Pakistan asking about the ingredients necessary to bake something for an upcoming marriage.
Within hours, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was on to him.
Agents monitored his calls. They followed him across the country. They became particularly alarmed when they learned he had purchased large quantities of hydrogen peroxide, a hair dye.
Almost three years later and 15 miles away, James Eagan Holmes was filling his home with armament. He had regular deliveries of ammunition for a military-style AR-15 rifle, two handguns and a shotgun he purchased over the course of 60 days. There were about 6,000 rounds in all, another 300 shotgun shells and a high-capacity drum for the rifle. In all, it amounted to more than 200 pounds of ordnance.
All of it legal. None of it, apparently, noticed by or reported to police. None of it the slightest bit disconcerting to ammunition suppliers, delivery drivers or neighbors.
The contrast between the rapid response and monitoring of Zazi and the lack of citizen interest in Holmes is not lost on some in Colorado’s Islamic community.
“This guy literally arms himself to the teeth by mail order without anyone pointing a finger and saying, ‘What’s going on?’ “ asked Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni, a little incredulous. “If my name is Ibrahim or Mohammed and I order a gun or that much ammunition on the Internet, I think within a few hours of the delivery, the FBI and CIA is at my house.”
Important note: Kazerooni is not suggesting the FBI was wrong to investigate Zazi (nor am I). As it turned out, “marriage” was terrorist-speak for “suicide bombing.” I am glad the people who monitor the inboxes and outboxes of al- Qaeda operatives in Pakistan are aware of such linguistic deceptions.
But Kazerooni, an Iraqi by birth, a former political prisoner of Saddam Hussein and a thoughtful, eloquent representative of Denver’s Muslim community, is advocating for investigational parity — for nosy neighbors and police officers.
He is well aware that much of global terrorism is led by those who have his faith but not his approval. Still, as Friday morning’s theater massacre made plain, terrorists take a lot of forms. One of them, police believe, is the form of a Ph.D. candidate from the University of Colorado Denver.
The fact that neighbors and delivery drivers seem to have failed to notice as Holmes amassed his weapons and ammunition and booby-trapped his apartment, while, for example, New York City police actively loiter in Muslim coffee shops to collect intelligence, is indicative of the greater scrutiny Muslims face in our society in the years since Sept. 11, 2001, Kazerooni said.
“There is the general feeling that exists in the U.S. Muslim community that they are marginalized and treated differently,” Kazerooni said. “The foundation for this is real. There are a number of examples in the country that have led to this cynicism.”
Now, knowing what police say he did, it is easy to view Holmes as a clear threat to himself or others. His once-promising future was suddenly cloudy as he was struggling in school. He shut himself off from much of the world. He began buying guns and ammo in large quantities. He may have dyed his hair a color not found in nature.
Kazerooni is likely right. If Holmes were Iranian-American, or Afghan-American, his purchases, his apparent withdrawal and his plans probably would have been noticed by neighbors, reported and investigated. Not fair. Just true.
But the lack of notice paid to Holmes probably goes beyond ethnicity or religion. He was a doctoral student with limitless potential. Like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski or Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, he just doesn’t fit our prejudiced societal criteria for suspicion.
And so we ask: Should there be a shared database to flag authorities to large ammunition purchases when someone suddenly ramps up their arsenal? Would that serve as a backstop for a society given to the bias that certain people just aren’t capable of mass violence? Would it even be legal? Would it be effective?
Creation of such a database would only lead to other troubling questions, the biggest of which would be: How many bullets and shells are too many bullets and shells?
For the Batman fans in theaters 8 and 9 Friday morning, the answer is 70.
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