Posted on March 10, 1997 in Washington Watch
On January 23, a sixty-nine year old Palestinian from Gaza, Ali Abu Kamal, opened fire while on the observation deck at the top of the Empire State Building in New York City. By the end of his shooting spree, he had killed one and injured six. He then killed himself. Among the victims of this outrage were a Danish rock start, who was killed, a Swiss tourist, an Argentinean tourist, an Hispanic immigrant, and two babies one five months and the other eighteen months old.
This was a tragedy that shook New York and the rest of the U.S. For three days, the story of Ali Abu Kamal was front page fare across the nation. It did not, however, lead to an Anti-Arab frenzy. Editors and writers, with only a few exceptions, saw the event for what it was—a personal tragedy for the victims and their families, and even for Mr. Abu Kamal and his family.
What anger there was, was directed at lax U.S. gun laws and the lax security arrangements at the top of the Empire State Building.
This was true even in New York City’s two tabloid newspapers, the New York Post and the New York Daily News, both of which often sensationalize stories that involve Arabs.
The Post, for the most part, was exemplary in its treatment. In the two days the paper splashed the story across its front pages in three inch bold headlines, no mention was made of Mr. Abu Kamal’s Palestinian or Arab nationality. He was simply described as a “shooter” or a “gunman.”
The first day’s story did not even include mention of Abu Kamal’s name—even though it was known. Only in its editorial did the Post stoop to anti-Arab treatment. This editorial was the only anti-Arab editorial that appeared in any major U.S. newspaper covering the story.
The Post editorial writer linked Abu Kamal with Rashid Baz (the Lebanese cab driver who three years ago, in Brooklyn, NY, opened fire on a van carrying Jewish students, killing one), and Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. While acknowledging that Au Kamal was not a terrorist, but a man with “personal problems,” the Post editorial asked why “everybody with a screw loose in the Middle East ends up in New York.”
After this bigoted exaggeration, the Post’s second day’s coverage of the story was surprisingly objective, in-depth, and even thoughtful.
The front page headline read, “Descent into Hell—Final Days of the Empire State Shooter and Why He Snapped.” The lead story was a personal profile of Mr. Abu Kamal, an attempt to understand the pressures that led him to this mad act. The paper also included: a moving account of the reaction of Abu Kamal’s family in Gaza; profiles of the victims of the shooting; four articles mentioning how lax gun laws made it too easy for anyone to purchase a gun thereby increasing the possibility for murder to occur; an article on the absence of security at the Empire State Building; and a fair and sensitive treatment of shock and sadness felt by New York’s Palestinian American community entitled, “Sick thing not an Arab thing.”
New York’s other tabloid, the Daily News also ran the story with three inch front page headlines on two consecutive days. On both days Mr. Abu Kamal’s name was not used and there was no reference to his nationality. The headlines simply described him as a “gunman” on day one and “a shooter” on day two.
Like the Post, the Daily News featured profiles of the victims; articles critical of gun laws and Empire State Building Security’s treatment of the demise of Abu Kamal in which he was described as “a man who lost all hope”; and an article of reactions of New York’s Arab American community. In both the Post and the Daily News stories on the Arab American reactions, quotes used established clearly the shock and grief Arab Americans shared with their fellow New Yorkers.
The Daily News, like almost all newspapers nation-wide, featured two large photos, one of Abu Kamal’s oldest daughter grieving and another, a poignant picture of Abu Kamal’s youngest son in Gaza carrying a large photo of his father.
This was how the two most sensationalist and usually Anti-Arab papers covered the tragic shooting. The major U.S. dailies, among them the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times were equally fair and faithful to the principle of good journalism. Articles and photos reflected the same general treatment given by the tabloids. There was no sensationalism and no Arab-baiting.
The only editorial to appear in a major daily was in the New York Times. It was entitled, “A Preventable Tragedy” and called for more effective gun control laws.
While all the major papers carried pieces on the victims, lax security, and gun laws, and extensive and sensitive pieces on Abu Kamal’s descent into madness and violence and the reaction of his family, only the New York Times reprinted, in full, the note left by Abu Kamal in which he described his anger and desire for revenge. Since the letter included references to Zionism and the loss of Palestinian rights, it could have been exploited and sensationalized.
But the New York Times published it in full and in its accompanying article made clear that the letter described not a terrorist but a profoundly disturbed man who had descended into despair, and insane violence.
In his letter, Abu Kamal lists his enemies whom he says must be “annihilated and exterminated.” They included: “the Americans, the British, the French, and the Zionists; the gang of rogues who attacked me in my office in Gaza in 1993”; an officer in the Egyptian army who beat him; and three Palestinian students who robbed and beat his son in the Ukraine.
Throughout the coverage of this tragedy it was clear that this was not terrorism, but the act of a deranged individual.
With the exception of one editorial, commentary from a few right-wing radio talk show hosts, and some complaints that the FBI had paid a few visits to a few Arab Americans seeking information, the treatment of this entire episode was quite different than Arabs have come to expect and fear. This time Arabs and Muslims did not become targets of the press. They did not become incidental victims as they have on too many occasions in the past.
One month after the killings, President Clinton issued an Executive Order tightening U.S. gun control laws. It was this issue and the need for enhanced security at the Empire State Building and not Arabs or Muslims that emerged as the focal points of discussion from the Abu Kamal shooting.
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