A controversial cartoon contest in Garland turned deadly last night when two armed men attacked. The event offered a $10,000 prize for the best drawing of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Near the end of the event, at seven p.m., the two men approached the Curtis Culwell Center in a dark sedan and, when approached by a police officer and an unarmed security officer, opened fire with semiautomatic rifles. Bruce Joiner, the unarmed security officer, was shot in the ankle, and the police officer—whose name has not yet been released—shot and killed both of the assailants.
The story has evolved and rumors have grown and been debunked overnight. Here’s everything we know right now.
Who were the shooters?
We have only one name right now: Elton Simpson, of Phoenix, Arizona. The other one is currently believed to be his roommate, and the FBI has searched their apartment looking for information.
Simpson has a criminal record—he was convicted in 2011 for making a false statement when, during questioning by FBI agents, he told them that “he had not discussed traveling to Somalia to engage in ‘violent jihad’ when, in fact, he had,” according to CNN.
Why did they do it?
An FBI source who has talked to the media says that Simpson tweeted with the hashtag #TexasAttack from the now-suspended account @atawaakul, declaring, “The bro with me and myself have given bay’ah to Amirul Mu’mineem,” and asking, “May Allah accept us as mujahideen.”
“Bay’ah” is an oath of allegiance, and Amirul Mu’mineem is a title that means “leader of the faithful.” Presumably in this case, it refers to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is among those who use the title.
In other words, if the @atawaakul account was Simpson’s, then it is probably true that this was intended as a jihadist attack.
What weapons did they have?
Early reports indicated that Simpson and his accomplice had bombs in their car, but that’s been debunked by the Garland Police Department, which didn’t find any explosives in the car or on their persons. They’re reported to have been armed with semiautomatic rifles and to have worn body armor. The only person they shot was Joiner, the 58-year-old security guard, who suffered a minor leg injury. The police officer who killed them was armed with his service pistol.
What was the event?
The cartoon contest was hosted by the American Freedom Defense Initiative. The $10,000-prize-winning entry, which you can see here, was drawn by cartoonist Bosch Fawstin, who also created the comic book The Infidel, in which a character named Pigman fights jihadists in the Middle East.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative is a fairly controversial organization—the Southern Poverty Law Center considers it an anti-Muslim group. The organization’s actions include ads on public transportation in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., that used language like “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
The AFDI billed the event as a free-speech rally, though it’s worth noting that the keynote speaker was Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who advocated banning the Koran—a curious choice for a free-speech rally.
What will happen next?
With both of the shooters dead, there’s not really a “next” in this case. There won’t be a trial or a legal battle, and we can probably assume that the AFDI is content with the outcome here—there were two hundred attendees at the event, and aside from a security guard’s leg wound, none of them were injured. Meanwhile, an event that seems like it was intended to antagonize Muslims managed to successfully antagonize Muslims to the point that they turned to violence.
There is no excuse for that violence, obviously, and countless Muslims in Texas and elsewhere will spend their time and energy decrying the attack. The line between “freedom of speech” and “causing maximum offense” will continue to blur, and—given the attacks in the past four months in Paris, Copenhagen, and now Garland—presumably we’ll see more events just like this.
Did the AFDI have the right to hold this contest?
Absolutely, yes. They had the right to hold the contest, just as they had the right to hold a rally in Chicago earlier this year that included chants of “Go back to your own countries! We don’t want you here!” Freedom of speech includes the right to antagonize and insult people. There is no question about that.
Similarly, there’s no question that responding to that insult with violence is absolutely wrong, and we should all be grateful that no one was killed besides those who came to the event with guns and opened fire.
But these conversations ought to go beyond “the right to do this,” because there are all sorts of things that we have the right to do that we don’t do, because it brings pain into the world. It isn’t particularly difficult or clever to provoke a handful of violent, disturbed people with cartoons of Muhammad. The playbook is well established at this point; there are at least five people who have responded violently to that provocation this year. Apparently if you spend tens of thousands of dollars holding an event that is intended to insult, you can convince a couple of inept guys with guns to drive sixteen hours in an attempt to hurt you.
There’s no question that the AFDI had the right to do all of that, but there remains a pretty big question of “Why.”