For a good part of yesterday, including Saturday night, much of the nation was focused on what might have been an unfolding tragedy at Congregation Beth Israel. Happily, none of the hostages was hurt.
The hostage-taker died
At the time of this writing, we do not have the full details. Much is still speculation. The perpetrator did state from the very start that he expected to die. Was that expectation a premonition, a suicide wish, or a desire to become a martyr (or some combination)?
The motives for his actions are still not clear. What is clear is that yesterday did not follow the normative Al Qaeda patterns and yesterday’s tragic events have produced more questions than answers. Although law enforcement has released only the barest of information, it is clear that law enforcement did an excellent job.
Municipal, state and federal police were patient and used time as a weapon. All parts of law enforcement worked together, and the hostage negotiators were excellent. Law enforcement on all levels deserves our admiration and thanks in the face of what could have been a tragedy.
Rabbi Cytron-Walker had received special training to deal with such an incident. Although it is tragic that the police have to train clergy to deal with these types of incidents, the training worked and the media report that throughout the process Rabbi Cytron-Walker was calm and levelheaded.
The incident, however, raises numerous questions and also provides new challenges. Among the questions that need to be asked are:
Normally, death occurs at the beginning of a terrorist incident. If the perpetrator wanted to murder why did he not do this at the beginning of the incident?
What were the perpetrator’s motives? At first he demanded the release of a convicted terrorist, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. Yet he had to have known that there was no chance that this was going to happen. Were there other motives? Was this a test run for new terrorist attacks? Are there other motives about which we are unaware?
Why did he choose a synagogue? Was this another act of anti-Semitism? Why did he choose Beth Israel? Its services were on-line meaning that actual number of congregants present would be minimum. On the other hand, there were well over 1,000 people attending on-line Shabbat morning services. Furthermore, reports indicated that the perpetrator wanted to “attack” a synagogue close to the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport? If so, why would this be important to him? Oddly, the perpetrator seemed to like the rabbi and indicated that he felt welcome at Beth Israel. Most terrorists do not like their victims. Were these emotions signs of mental instability or a new form of terrorism? These unconnected facts mean that this terrorist attack did not follow the normal patters. It is even questionable if this attack was purely anti-Semitic, or the perpetrator chose the synagogue for maximum publicity. Al Qaeda attacks often seek publicity as a recruitment tool.
Although it is now clear that the perpetrator was British we do not know if that piece of data is of any consequence. Others have noted that the US basically has an open southern border, that at least 2 million people have entered illegally since January 20, 2021, and these people come from well over 100 nations. This latter fact leads to the additional question, how did they get from their home country to the US-Mexican border? Who is funding their passage to Mexico or a Central American nation and are they entering these nations legally or illegally?
Is there a relationship between the disastrous US pullout from Afghanistan and what happened yesterday? Does the US appear to be so weak that Al Qaeda used this incident as a test run?
Is there a relationship with between this incident and the US’ ongoing crime wave in major cities? Viewing the US from abroad, does the US appear to be so weak that those who would seek to do harm, especially Iranians, but also others, wanted to measure US resolve?
Things we do know
Rabbi Cytron-Walker is a popular and loved figure throughout both the Colleyville Jewish and broader community. He is friends with the chief of police, and its police department, active in interfaith activities, and well liked within the local Muslim community.
The local Muslim community stood with the Jewish community.
The same can be said of both the general Colleyville community and its Christian community. These communities immediately offered support and solidarity.
The same can be said for the greater Dallas-Ft. Worth community and the State of Texas.
Although it is not clear to what extent this attack was anti-Semitic, anti-Semitism is a major social problem throughout the Western world.
Some early lessons learned
Local synagogues (and other faith-based institutions) need to have close relationships with local and state law enforcement.
Jewish community centers, synagogues and institutions must have full security plans and assume that “it can happen here.”
There is a need for better protection at synagogues. It is an open question as to who should and should not be armed, and what gun laws should or should not be implemented. Arguments can be made for the fact that there are too many guns in the United States. A counter argument can be made that synagogues/community facilities should have designated people who are capable of using firearms and have gone through rigorous background checks. No gun/firearm zones may be dangerous especially considering issues of anti-Semitism. Terrorists and criminals ignore “no gun laws” and know that people in non-gun zones are incapable of self-protection.
Passive equipment such as cameras help in analyzing an event but will not stop a terrorist attack.
Ushers at synagogues need special training to recognize possible problems.
Items such as backpacks should be left far away from locations where people gather.
It is important to make sure that the media reports an incident correctly and without bias. Many American media did a good job, on the other hand both Reuters and the BBC did a far less adequate job.