What can we learn from an event like this?
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
Today's read: 10 minutes.
We're covering the synagogue attack in Texas. Plus, I answer your questions about the gold and some important stories on Covid-19.
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- In a court appearance, the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James alleged “significant evidence” of fraud at the Trump Organization. (The allegations)
- The U.S. has started accepting orders for free Covid-19 rapid tests. (The tests)
- The House panel investigating the January 6 riots subpoenaed Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, citing their efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. (The subpoenas)
- President Biden will hold his first solo press conference at the White House in over 10 months today. (The presser)
- Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is continuing a push to modify filibuster rules so Democrats can pass major voting rights legislation. (The push)
The synagogue attack in Texas. On Saturday, four people — including a rabbi — were taken hostage inside Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. The small city of 26,000 people is just north of Fort Worth. A 44-year-old British man named Malik Faisal Akram was later identified by the FBI as the hostage taker.
Akram was let into the synagogue by congregants and sat through part of the Shabbat services before displaying a weapon and taking four men hostage. When he entered the synagogue, the service was being live streamed on Facebook and Akram could be heard demanding to talk to his “sister,” Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who was convicted of trying to kill U.S. military officers and is serving an 86-year sentence in a Texas prison. He can also be heard explaining that the congregants let him in, according to the Times of Israel, who reported on the livestream.
“They let me in. I said ‘Is this a night shelter?’ and they let me in and they gave me a cup of tea so I do feel bad," Akram can be heard saying. “I like the rabbi, he’s a good guy, I bonded with him, I really like him… I’ve only been here for a couple hours but I can see he’s a good guy."
Akram spent 11 hours in a standoff with more than 200 law enforcement agents who descended on the synagogue. Around 5 p.m., one male hostage was released unharmed from the synagogue. Before 10 p.m., the other hostages escaped. Akram was fatally shot by the FBI, who stormed the synagogue after the hostages were released.
According to The Guardian, Akram flew to the U.S. and acquired a gun despite having a criminal record and an extensive history of mental health issues. Akram had a criminal record in the U.K. and in 2001 was banned from Blackburn magistrates court after telling a court usher he wished they had been on the planes that flew into the World Trade Center. He had no known terrorism convictions, and had no previous connection to Texas, though he had traveled there earlier this month. President Biden told reporters “the assertion was he got the weapons on the street. He purchased them when he landed.”
Throughout the synagogue attack, Akram was demanding the release of Siddiqui, who has suspected ties to Al-Qaeda and was charged with intending to kill U.S. military officers while in custody in Afghanistan. Officials are still investigating if Akram and Siddiqui are actually related. Siddiqui's case is controversial, and she has many advocates in Pakistan (and some in the U.S.) who claim she was treated unfairly and is being held unjustly. Public protests in Pakistan have been held to support her, and author Deborah Scroggins called her case “one of the most mysterious in a secret war dense with mysteries.”
Below, we'll take a look at some reactions from the left and right. Then my take.
What the left is saying.
- The left called out anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories about Jews.
- Some asked how Akram got into the U.S. and got a gun.
- Others said attacks like this are a reminder of the danger of demonizing people we disagree with.
In The Los Angeles Times, Rob Eshman said "not one of those four hostages had anything to do with Siddiqui."
"Siddiqui was tried and convicted for grabbing a carbine and shooting at U.S. service members while under arrest in Afghanistan in 2008. Considering why a British Muslim might threaten the lives of four Texas Jews in 2022 for the actions of a Pakistani in Afghanistan in 2008 tells you a lot about the poisonous reach of antisemitic conspiracy theories and the need to call out and stop them," Eshman wrote. "In 2008, Afghanistan police arrested her. She was carrying documents on making explosives, along with descriptions of the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and other New York City landmarks.
"During an interrogation, Siddiqui grabbed a rifle and shot at her captors and questioners. Before her 2009 trial for the shooting, Siddiqui tried to dismiss her lawyers because of their Jewish background and demanded that prospective jurors undergo DNA testing to determine if they had Jewish genes," Eshman noted. "When an FBI spokesman said after the hostage-taking in Texas that the standoff was 'not specifically related to Jewish community' — a statement that made headlines and deeply upset many Jews — it was both right and wrong. The Jews have nothing to do with Siddiqui, but in minds twisted by antisemitic hate, they have everything to do with her."
The Dallas Morning News editorial board said events like this draw out an important contrast to what really matters.
"We are so quick today to make enemies of those with whom we differ politically. We see everywhere around us the belittlement and dehumanization of people who think differently, act differently, love differently, worship differently," the board wrote. "We should stop. We should take a moment like this to calculate the difference between something with which we strongly disagree and that which is truly horrible and terrible and deserves the name evil because it would steal innocent lives for its own ends.
"The fact that a Jewish synagogue was targeted is a reminder of how an entire people have been scapegoated and demonized throughout history. It can happen again, and we must not let it," they wrote.
The Washington Post editorial board asked how Akram got into the U.S. and how he got a gun.
"Mr. Akram has been known to security officials in Britain," the board wrote. "The BBC reported that he had been investigated in 2020 by Britain’s counterintelligence and security agency and placed on a watch list as a 'subject of interest' before it was concluded that he no longer posed a threat. According to his brother, Mr. Akram had a well-known history of mental health problems and a criminal record. 'How was he allowed to get a visa and acquire a gun?' asked the brother.
"Good questions," the board said. "After 9/11, strict security protocols were put in place to screen out people coming to the United States with the aim of doing harm. What were the circumstances of Mr. Akram’s entry through New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Dec. 29; was there a human mistake or a failure in the system that needs to be addressed? It will be important for authorities to determine whether Mr. Akram acted alone. That it was seemingly so easy for him to acquire a gun — reportedly buying it off the street — underscores once again the complete folly of American gun laws."
What the right is saying.
- The right also called out anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories about Jews.
- Some pointed to the threat of extremism inside Pakistan.
- Others asked how someone like Akram was allowed into the U.S.
In 19fortyfive, Michael Rubin argued that it’s time to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism.
"In Pakistan, Siddiqui became a cause célèbre," he wrote. "Pakistan’s president, prime minister, and foreign minister all brought up her case with their American counterparts, and the Pakistani senate called on the United States to release her. While the news of Siddiqui’s arrest passed with little notice in the United States, her conviction led to widespread anti-American demonstrations, and to demands that Pakistani authorities suspend the delivery of supplies for the war effort in Afghanistan. Her incarceration occupied headlines in Pakistan for months.
"With her brother’s attack on the Beth Israel synagogue, the prominence of her case will increase. While groups like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State are filled with citizens of other countries whose governments denounce them, Aafia Siddiqui is different: Pakistani officials at all levels of government endorse her and treat her like a hero. Inevitably, many on the Pakistani street will now celebrate her brother or, at the very least, excuse his actions... Pakistan’s embrace of Aafia is just the tip of the iceberg."
The New York Post editorial board asked how Akram got into the U.S.
"Why was Malik Faisal Akram even in this country?" the Post asked. "That’s only one of many questions surrounding the Brit’s attack on a Texas synagogue, but it’s one of the biggest. As Akram’s brother told Sky News, 'He’s known to police. Got a criminal record.' Nor did he have any visible means of support; Gulbar Akram also says he 'was suffering from mental health issues.' ... Yet the feds say he somehow got a visa and flew into JFK around New Year’s, listing a hotel on Queens Boulevard as his destination.
"Thank God the rabbi managed to lead an escape (after 10 hours), leaving the FBI free to use deadly force to bring him down. Good on the G-men for resolving the crisis without loss of innocent life (even if a higher-up later seemed to suggest there was nothing anti-Semitic about targeting a temple). But other feds plainly screwed up by letting this guy into the country in the first place," the board said. "American travelers put up with a vast amount of security theater: millions of man-hours lost each year to unpredictably long TSA lines; intrusive pat-downs; the whole take-off-your-shoes-and-belt rigamarole. Yet the vast security apparatus can’t screen out a mentally ill Muslim extremist?"
In The Wall Street Journal, Dominic Green said politicians and media outlets should disavow white nationalists and Islamic extremists in equal measure.
"I wasn’t surprised that it happened. This sort of crime isn’t yet normal, but it is starting to feel familiar," Green wrote. “Familiar enough for Jewish parents to calculate the chances of getting caught in the statistical crossfire every time we take our children to synagogues, schools and Jewish-themed events. When you’re perpetually calculating these odds, the question of whether the person who might shoot up the place is a deranged Islamist or a deranged white nationalist is secondary. Yet it’s of primary importance to the media and political parties.
"After a white-nationalist attack, the media devote considerable resources to tracing the attacker’s ideas and search history along the ideological continuum and tarring the Republican Party with 'complicity' in his crimes," Green wrote. "After an Islamist attack, the imperative is not to establish politicians’ complicity with the criminal, but to avoid any inquiry that might amount to 'Islamophobia.' Stifling the debate in this manner reflects the preference of most American media for the Democrats, but that shouldn’t distract us from a reality that has implications for all Americans."
On Friday night, I was leading a Shabbat dinner with my family in West Texas. Every year since I was 13, I've been spending weeks or months at a time down here in this part of rural Big Bend. My love of Texas and of the border has been formative in my views on politics, freedom, immigration, and just about every other issue you can imagine. It's about as vastly different of a place from Brooklyn, New York, where I live now, or from suburban Pennsylvania, where I grew up, as you can find in the U.S. And I love it for a whole set of different reasons than why I love New York or Pennsylvania or the suburbs or the city.
Over dinner I explained to the table why I felt such a deep connection to Shabbat. "Because," I said, "I know that all over Texas right now, there are Jews doing exactly what we're doing: Saying the same prayers, eating challah, opening a bottle of wine, and dialing into the things right in front of them for 24 hours… and I know my ancestors have been doing these same rituals for thousands of years.”
The next day I got the push notification on my phone that a hostage taker had stormed a synagogue a few hundred miles from where I was sitting in Texas. I tried not to read the story, because in my attempt to be an observant Jew I typically check out from the internet and my phone for 24 hours on Shabbat.
But it was too enticing and horrifying not to click it.
The normalcy of these events for Jews in the U.S. is becoming tough to wrap my head around. That I was in Texas when it happened made it all the more upsetting. Was Akram an anti-Semite? A terrorist? Mentally ill? All of the above? The truth is we don't yet know. Maybe Akram really thought he was entering a shelter and had a mental break. Maybe this was premeditated and we'll learn the synagogue had been targeted for months.
But we do know this: Akram didn't storm an FBI building or a government building or a school or a church. He stormed a synagogue. Assuming he really wasn't in a manic state of confusion, either he hated Jews or he was convinced that his odds of getting Siddiqui released were highest by holding a bunch of Jews hostage — which would almost certainly be tied to the conspiracy theories of Jews running the world and being the ones pulling the levers of power.
We don't know what his true motivations were and we probably won't ever, because he's dead. What we can see are the multiple failures of American policy: Akram easily passed through an international security system (the TSA) meant to identify people just like him. As a non-citizen with a history of mental illness, he easily found and purchased a gun after just a couple of weeks in the U.S. He was almost certainly influenced by anti-Semitism that is now rampant on the left and right, and was seeking freedom for a woman arrested for her role in our failed war on terrorism in the Middle East.
An incident like this doesn't just highlight a returning hatred of Jews or the threat of Islamic extremism in Pakistan, it highlights failures across American policies on guns, immigration, war and bigotry.
Of course, the sick and beautiful and twisted thing about all this was the positive power of the American spirit it also highlighted: That a man with ties to Islamic extremism walked into a Texas synagogue and was welcomed with open arms, something that would never happen in many other countries. That hours into his hostage-taking of Jews, he conceded that he actually "liked the rabbi" and "bonded" with him and felt bad about what he was doing. That interfaith communities across Texas responded by calling for understanding and love of one another, not more division.
Perhaps I’m looking through delusional rose tinted lenses, but I can't help but be struck by the fact that even in a situation as remarkably horrifying and extreme and absurd as this, we're reminded of the simple power of talking to each other.
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Tangle: Alright, we need a bit of a lighthearted reader question for today’s newsletter.
Yesterday, I offhandedly referenced a wager I made last year where someone bet me $15,000 in gold that Joe Biden wouldn't be inaugurated.
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A story that matters.
Yesterday, the White House announced a plan to distribute 400 million free N95 masks at thousands of pharmacies and health care centers across the country. The announcement came with new mask guidance from the CDC, which was updated on Friday, that says N95 or KN95 masks offer far more protection than cloth face coverings. The masks will be made available to everyone and distribution will not be prioritized based on vulnerability, age or economic status. The mask distribution comes on the heels of a new government website to order Covid-19 tests, as some experts say the Omicron surge appears to have peaked. NBC News has the story.
- One in four. The number of American Jews in the U.S. who say they experienced anti-Semitism in the last year.
- 39%. The percentage of American Jews who said they changed their behavior in the last 12 months — such as avoiding wearing items that would identify them as Jewish — based on fear of anti-Semitism.
- 60%. The percentage of Americans who say anti-Semitism is a problem in the U.S.
- 48%. In 2017, the percentage of Muslims who said they had experienced discrimination in the U.S.
- 53%. The percentage of Americans who don't know anyone who is Muslim.
Have a nice day.
The world officially has a new "oldest tortoise" ever. Last week, a tortoise named Jonathan celebrated his 190th birthday, making him the oldest tortoise ever and the oldest known living land animal on earth. Jonathan is believed to have been born in 1832 and his age is based on an estimate that he spent 50 years in the wild before arriving in St Helena, a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic Ocean. In all likelihood, he is actually older than 190, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. "The Veterinary Section is still feeding him by hand once a week to boost his calories, vitamins, minerals and trace elements, as he is blind and has no sense of smell," caretakers said. "His hearing though is excellent and he loves the company of humans, and responds well to his vet Joe Hollins' voice as he associates him with a feast."
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