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Bits of information that shape — and distort — our thinking

Published Jan. 12, 2012

The would-be bomber was 17. A slender, shaggy-haired white kid expelled from school and prone to outbursts. His bedroom was stockpiled with supplies to build pipe bombs, and a detailed plot to blow up a Tampa high school.

He must be disturbed.

The would-be bomber was 25. A slender, bearded man from Kosovo shouting on street corners about American values. He tried to purchase weapons and explosives, and hatched various plots to blow up Tampa landmarks.

He must be Muslim.

The validity of these statements is not the issue. The first suspect, arrested in August, would obviously seem to be disturbed, and the second was most certainly a Muslim.

It's the assumptions that are troubling. The idea that one can be dismissed as an aberration, and the other is given a more sinister interpretation.

Almost as if Muslim-as-terrorist has become an acceptable shorthand in our collective thinking.

Yet Sami Osmakac, who was arrested by federal authorities in Tampa on Monday and accused of attempting to use a device of mass destruction, was shunned by local Muslims and even reported to the police for his disturbing behavior at a mosque.

So is it really fair to indict the Muslim community with the acts of a madman?

"To their credit, law enforcement officials went out of their way to clarify that it was the Muslim community who first brought this individual to their attention,'' said Ahmed Bedier, a local Muslim commentator and past official in human rights groups.

"But no matter how it is portrayed, it will still be a negative for Muslims in the community. Just talking about it continues that same narrative of the Muslim extremist.''

Atrocities have been committed in the name of Islam. No one would argue otherwise. The problem is whether we've allowed the violence of a few to swallow the good intentions of so many others.

Exact figures are difficult to find because the census does not track religious beliefs, but estimates put the U.S. Muslim population around 3 million. And the overwhelming majority have the same aversion to violence as you or I.

It may be tempting, and even convenient, to be able to point a finger in one direction, but the truth is generally more complex than that.

"The media talks about (Osmakac) as a Muslim terrorist, but this guy was just a lunatic,'' said Dr. Ahmad Batrawy, a retired dentist who reported Osmakac and another man to police after they created a disturbance at a Pinellas Park mosque. "He did not preach the Islam doctrine. You do not preach hate. You do not preach violence.

"It makes me sad. We're all Americans doing our jobs, serving our country. And I feel like I have to defend myself just for being a Muslim.''

None of us wants to be judged by the deeds of another. Particularly someone who twists our beliefs, and then represents them as the truth for everyone.

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"These people are enemies of our faith,'' said Bedier. "We have more to lose than anyone from these criminals and deranged individuals. We might suffer the consequences of an attack just like every person might in America.

"But, when it's over, we're also going to suffer from the backlash.''

John Romano can be reached at