Column: A Case of Mistaken Identity

I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for a few years. My work included dealing with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in connection with drug development and safety monitoring. I traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend meetings at the FDA focused on drugs in development. These meetings were routinely boring and uninformative. Decisions regarding the drugs being considered often appeared to be based upon the input from legislators rather than from scientists.

I heard about a meeting I had not attended which concerned an antidepressant drug that was expected to be a “blockbuster,” a term reserved for the most innovative and potentially profitable drugs. I pieced together the fragments of information I had gotten second or third hand and was confident of my reconstruction of events. Subsequently, what had transpired at that meeting was under discussion in a gathering of my colleagues, and I recounted what I understood to have occurred at the FDA meeting. My account was filled with high drama and brinksmanship.  Negotiations between the lead scientists on the project and the government monitors were tense and circuitous, at least according to my version of events.  

Unfortunately, there was someone amongst the attentive listeners who dared to disagree. He announced unexpectedly, “I was there, and it wasn’t like that.” He went on to describe a perfunctory review of material presented to the government officials and their uninspired and tedious recommendations. The meeting he was at was devoid of drama, brinksmanship, and tense negotiations. When he finished, I noted, “My version is better.” Most agreed that they preferred my speculative reconstruction to my colleague’s boring recollections. People are more likely to stay awake if they hear what they want to hear.

So it was with the news last week. On Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, a man interrupted a cultural event that was being broadcast live to a local audience and made threatening and largely incoherent remarks to the handful of people at the site and brandished a firearm. One of the terrified attendees was able to call 911 and a massive show of force ensued. The police and an FBI hostage negotiating team contacted the perpetrator and established that he was a British citizen and that he wanted to talk to several people, including a woman being held in a nearby Federal prison. His whereabouts after entering the U.S. had been traced to the Union Gospel Mission homeless shelter, but little additional information regarding his activities and contacts after entering the U.S. were known initially. During the conversations with law enforcement, one of the people being held by the intruder was allowed to leave. The remaining captives escaped unharmed. The perpetrator was shot and killed by law enforcement.

This was a distressing incident, executed by a mentally disturbed foreigner who accurately predicted that he would be killed for taking hostages. He also indicated that the hostages would get out alive, that Jews ran the banks and the world, and that he needed to talk to the “chief rabbi of America.” For those who are unfamiliar with the facts, please note that the Jews do not run the banks and the world and there is no chief rabbi of America.  A quick check with British officials established that this man had ties to the Pakistani community where he lived in England and was presumed to be a Muslim.

The incident itself was an increasingly common event in a country plagued by hate crimes and assaults on innocent people. Just as I had felt the need to add engaging elements to my story of the routine and unremarkable FDA meeting, the American news media found ways to make what has become an almost daily American ordeal more noteworthy. They assumed that this man was a radicalized adherent to Islam and was, consequently, a terrorist.

The “Be-Afraid-of-the Muslim” media also asked why the government agencies responsible for protecting us ignored ‘terrorists’ like this man but treated supporters of the former president as if they were terrorists. There can only be two reasonable responses to these irresponsible statements. First, to call this misinformed, Jew-hating, idiot a terrorist trivializes the term ‘terrorist’ and diminishes the value of that term in describing individuals truly intent on undermining our democracy and hurting our fellow citizens. Secondly, to suggest that the rioters on January 6, 2021, or the confessed foreign agent, retired General Michael Flynn, are being unfairly persecuted is ludicrous. These people advocated and violently sought the nullification of a democratically held election, an election whose legitimacy was upheld in 60 court cases, many of which involved judges belonging to the party of the defeated candidate and in several venues involved judges appointed by the former president. In contesting the election results, General Flynn insisted, “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God.” God help us if these people are given a pass. And please note, none of them has been designated a terrorist: they are merely common criminals.

It is curious that a criminal’s religious affiliation is of great interest when he or she is believed to be Muslim, but it is never discussed or revealed if he or she is not a Muslim. The obvious explanation for this disclosure-if-Muslim is that the media long ago linked “Muslim” with “terrorist” and raising the specter of a terrorist attack garners much more attention than merely reporting that an antisemitic moron from Great Britain threatened four Jews as they gathered for sabbath services. The “Be-Afraid-of-the Muslim” media noted that this man was “known to the police” and had been allowed into the U.S. despite background checks performed on him.  They failed to note that his background check did not uncover any grounds for concern and that he had been vetted before gaining entry into the U.S. The gun he brandished was acquired in the U.S., allegedly at the Christian homeless shelter in Texas where he had stayed for three days.The “Be-Afraid-of-the Muslim” media also asked why the government agencies responsible for protecting us ignored ‘terrorists’ like this man but treated supporters of the former president as if they were terrorists.  There can only be two reasonable responses to these irresponsible statements. First, to call this misinformed, Jew-hating, idiot a terrorist trivializes the term ‘terrorist’ and diminishes the value of that term in describing individuals truly intent on undermining our democracy and hurting our fellow citizens.  Secondly, to suggest that the rioters on January 6, 2021, or the confessed foreign agent, retired General Michael Flynn, are being unfairly persecuted is ludicrous. These people advocated and violently sought the nullification of a democratically held election, an election whose legitimacy was upheld in 60 court cases, many of which involved judges belonging to the party of the defeated candidate and in several venues involved judges appointed by the former president.  In contesting the election results, General Flynn insisted, “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God.” God help us if these people are given a pass. And please note, none of them has been designated a terrorist: they are merely common criminals.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees that there can be no religious test for government office and no laws criminalizing religious beliefs.  Demonizing any group because some of their members are terrible people is self-destructive.  Most American serial murderers have been middle-aged, white men. Why don’t we fear all middle-aged, white men?  Why don’t we know to what church or temple or religious sect these monstrous people or their family members belong? Obviously, the news is much more engaging if the story focuses on elements that can predictably arouse our fears or prejudices.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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