On December 7, 2016

Humans, too

When a school shooting or other domestic terrorism event has occurred, part of the nauseous standard operating procedure is to comb the attacker’s social media history for clues as to what caused him to perform the horrific deed: was he always violent, insane, antisocial, or was there, at some point, a normal human being bearing that same face and name? If the latter, might we be able—if his Internet activity was steady and substantial—to determine the exact moment when the switch was flipped and the madman was born?
Abdul Razak Ali Artan, the Ohio State University student who injured 11 people in a campus attack, posted a fairly standard anti-U.S. Facebook rant just before picking up his knife, but in the days following the attack, journalists also looked to a more traditional media source as they sought to assemble a background sketch of the criminal: the school newspaper.
In August, on his first day as a transfer student, Artan was interviewed for the OSU “Lantern” for a series called “Humans of Ohio State,” modeled on the hugely popular blog “Humans of New York,” in which graceful photographs of ordinary New Yorkers, seemingly chosen at random, are matched with poignant self-descriptive quotations from the photos’ subjects. In Artan’s photo, he looks thoughtful before a leafy collegiate backdrop, a little worried, a little tired. His caption:
“I just transferred from Columbus State. We had prayer rooms, like actual rooms where we could go pray because we Muslims have to pray five times a day. There’s Fajr, which is early in the morning, at dawn. Then Zuhr during the daytime, then Asr in the evening, like right about now. And then Maghrib, which is like right at sunset and then Isha at night. I wanted to pray Asr. I mean, I’m new here. This is my first day. This place is huge, and I don’t even know where to pray. I wanted to pray in the open, but I was scared with everything going on in the media. I’m a Muslim, it’s not what the media portrays me to be. If people look at me, a Muslim praying, I don’t know what they’re going to think, what’s going to happen. But, I don’t blame them. It’s the media that put that picture in their heads so they’re just going to have it and it, it’s going to make them feel uncomfortable. I was kind of scared right now. But I just did it. I relied on God. I went over to the corner and just prayed.”
The irony here—that Artan ultimately embodied exactly the stereotype that he presents (accurately) as a media-propagated boogeyman—is so obvious and grotesque as to feel calculated, as if the whole thing was concocted after the fact in order to push a hard-right Islamophobic agenda by asserting that even the most peaceful, tolerant, and scholarly of Muslims pose a threat to American lives. In the two contrasting visions of Artan—before and after the attack—it’s possible to imagine a young man toggling between liberal and conservative conceptions (the first humanistic and just a bit condescending, the second unapologetically demonizing) of Muslim-American identity, before settling, apparently, on the latter. His choice was unforgivable, but we can wonder, too, whether there was something personally dissatisfying or even untenable about the brave, patient victimhood that he was forced—by the expectations, presumably, of the reporter and his audience, but also perhaps more generally by a nation that, three months later, would vote for Hillary Clinton and then receive Donald Trump—to inhabit in his “Humans of Ohio State” profile.
When the “Humans of New York” blog was republished as a hardcover last year, a book review by Vinson Cunningham in “The New Yorker” took a contrarian point of view on the widely celebrated phenomenon and its sentimental form of storytelling: “Once an arrangement of events, real or invented, organized with the intent of placing a dagger—artistic, intellectual, moral—between the ribs of a listener or reader, a ‘story’ has lately become a glossier, less thrilling thing: a burst of pathos, a revelation without a veil to pull away. ‘Storytelling,’ in this parlance, is best employed in the service of illuminating business principles, or selling tickets to non-profit galas, or winning contests.” The article went on to criticize the project’s “flattening humanism” and claimed that any “ambiguity or intrigue to be found in a ‘HONY’ photo is chased out into the open, and, ultimately, annihilated by [Brandon] Stanton’s captions, and by the satisfaction that he seems to want his followers to feel.”
The “Humans of Ohio State” feature on Artan mimics the “HONY” formula skillfully, extracting a “soulful confession” that serves, however, only to affirm the liberal reader’s beliefs: in this case, that there exists a certain regressive anxiety in multicultural America but that, in the end, decency will triumph, and we’ll all be able to live together harmoniously. Did the sympathetic readers of the “Lantern” ultimately know Artan any better than the semiliterate xenophobes who would have cruelly pigeonholed him on sight?
If not, I’m not sure it was the fault of the well-intentioned student reporter. The hollowness of Artan’s quotation, read after the events of Nov. 28, only speaks to the limitations of a certain form of feel-good media that, even if the ideology it promotes is “correct,” remains as absent of real curiosity about people’s lives as the feel-bad fake-news fearmongering of the alt-right. Cunningham’s “New Yorker” piece observed that “the truest thing about a person, that person’s real story, is just as often the thing withheld—the silent thing—as the thing offered.”
We’ll never really know Abdul Razak Ali Artan: no great misfortune there, I guess, although we would do well to remember the words he spoke in August, regardless of what he did later on. It may also be worth remembering, however, that human beings are not simply instantiations of our politics.

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