Noor Salman, the wife of mass murderer/terrorist Omar Mateen (the man who killed 49 people and injured many others at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, FL in 2016) is being prosecuted for providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization , because she allegedly aided and abetted her husband’s violence. The trial is (or soon will be) underway. It will be important to pay attention to this trial. It could have far-reaching implications for family members of other perpetrators of mass casualty violence.
According to one news report Salman is alleged to have known about her husband’s plan beforehand and did not stop him. The case certainly has to be more nuanced than that, because I am unaware of a law that puts an affirmative duty on an individual to stop someone from engaging in violence. If such an obligation does exist, then why do we not see more parents prosecuted for gang related violence, for example?
First, what constitutes “knowing” in this scenario? Did Mateen tell his wife “I’m off to attack the nightclub now”? If he talked about hypotheticals wondering “what’s worse, attacking a park or a nightclub?” does that constitute “knowing”?
Either way, what is one’s legal obligation? Do we each have a legal responsibility (I do think we have a moral one) to stop someone from committing an act of violence? Conspiracy to commit violence is a crime. Providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization is also a crime. Knowing that a spouse is going to go out and commit an act of violence on behalf of a foreign terrorist organization and then doing nothing is not the same as taking an overt action to help in the commission of that violence.
Second, is this really the right case to pursue this legal theory? Noor Salman was repeatedly battered and abused by her husband. Domestic violence victims advocates – where are you? Victims advocates know very well, as do many of us who work in the criminal justice system, that victims of domestic abuse often have a very hard time confronting their abusive family member.
Is it material support of terrorism when a battered spouse who is living in fear fails to call the police?
When was the last time a family member of another mass murderer was exposed to similar criminal liability? Were Dylann Roof’s family members or friends prosecuted? How about the family members of any of the school shooters over the last 20 years who were not also killed by their loved one? How about the girlfriend of the 2017 Las Vegas mass murderer – Marilou Danley?
I cannot help but wonder if this prosecution is intended to send a message to the Muslim community: report or face criminal prosecution. Federal prosecutions are very selective, and they are used to send messages about the priorities of law enforcement. I have heard U.S. attorneys say this in public many times.
Of course Marilou Danley and the family members of Dylann Roof are not under the same legal jeopardy as Noor Salman. Even though their loved ones committed equally heinous crimes, those other crimes are not classified as terrorism. White supremacists and individuals with idiosyncratic ideologies supporting mass murder borne of their personal grievances will not be charged with terrorism even if their intention is to coerce others through violence based on politics or other social issues. But this is an aside that is long overdue to become a main topic of discussion.
In addition to the material support of terrorism charge, Salman is also charged with obstruction of justice. Lying to the FBI is a felony. Lie and you can be prosecuted. And if you are found guilty you will go to jail. I do not have a problem with this charge. It is wrong to lie to the FBI or to any other law enforcement officer.
I wonder, though, if this is another case where terrorism charges are touted but convictions are secured on the less sexy and the far less sensational obstruction of justice charge?
I would be leery of taking the prosecution’s word in that case that “justice was served” on the crime of material support of terrorism even if the only conviction is on obstruction of justice. If Salman provided material support then prove it. Prove it so that we have the necessary legal guidance to advise families as to their legal obligations going forward. We have seen too many instances where terrorism is alleged but not proven.
Still, I do believe we need to do more long before a person mobilizes to violence. It is in our collective self-interest to safeguard our communities. We cannot reasonably expect law enforcement to interdict every assailant. And the law will not allow for – thankfully – the mass surveillance that would be required to make that possible.
These acts of mass casualty violence – whether we label them rampage shootings, school shootings, violent hate crimes, or terrorism – are often instances of targeted violence. There are important similarities in many of these cases.
In about 80% of such cases the assailant told someone about his plans – directly or indirectly – before carrying out the violence. Rarely is it a case of good people suddenly “snapping,” and rarely is it caused by a mental illness. Instead, in many of these cases there are warning behaviors that may suggest an increased risk of targeted violence.
We as a society must become more educated about how to notice these warning behaviors. We must learn to interpret the things we see – which often suggest that someone we know and care for is in crisis – and we must learn to take some preventative, helpful actions. We can learn strategies to engage someone and persuade them to get help, or if necessary, we can refer them for help anonymously. And when we see a mobilization to violence, we must – as a moral imperative – report it to law enforcement.
There is no way to predict these horrific acts of violence based on warning behaviors, but by noticing, interpreting, and acting it may be that we help that person with whatever he or she was struggling with, and that by itself can contribute to community wellbeing.
While the impetus for a change in our social contract – in how we relate with one another and the responsibilities we have towards one another – may be to prevent future acts of mass casualty violence, the day to day actions that result can be focused on promoting a stronger, more resilient community.