People were enjoying a night out at a crowded restaurant in Caldwell on July 1 when a young man, Ralmanzow Bell, 21, got up on the bar.
He proceeded to loudly praise Allah as the “one true god.” Customers, fearing a terrorist attack, got up en masse and ran from the restaurant, leaving their belongings behind.
Restaurant owners and staffers subdued Bell. Police arrived quickly and determined the man’s backpack held booze, not a bomb. Bell, who has a long history with the criminal justice system, was charged with disorderly conduct.
The incident ultimately just involved the actions of a single drunken person. But it raises questions: When is a situation genuinely dangerous? How do you recognize a real terrorist threat? And it’s indicative of our current cultural climate, one where people must navigate their fears of terrorism while checking their own preconceptions and not rushing to judgment.
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s campaign, “If you See Something, Say Something,” urges people to be on the lookout for concerning activity. It emphasizes a focus on suspicious behavior — a person watching a building for a long time with binoculars, parking a car in an odd location, asking detailed questions about a building’s layout. People should not assume someone is suspicious because of appearance, ethnicity or religious affiliation.
But that kind of profiling still happens, and was possibly at work at the Caldwell restaurant, said Karen Pinto, a Boise State University professor specializing in Islamic cartography and Middle Eastern history. She noted the recent case in Ohio of a man in Arab dress who was speaking Arabic in a hotel lobby, prompting someone to call the police based on that alone. The police came and the man, upset by the encounter, had a stroke.
“They eventually realized he was just a businessman from the United Arab Emirates,” said Pinto.
In the Caldwell case, Bell praised Allah but never made any threats, said police Lt. Joey Hoadley — and it’s not known if he’s an active believer of Islam, which discourages alcohol. Bell did not show any weapons, though someone in the restaurant said they thought they saw him with a gun, Hoadley said.
“That turned out to be not true. It was somebody’s assumption.”
Before getting up on the bar, Bell apparently turned to a person sitting beside him and said, “Don’t think I’m crazy for what I’m about to do.”
After Bell was arrested, he was taken to a local hospital. He was more lucid at that point, said Hoadley, but couldn’t remember what had happened at the restaurant.
Hoadley said he has dealt with Bell on numerous occasions and that he has never heard Bell voice radical thoughts. “In my opinion,” he said, “Bell was a young kid who had recently turned 21. He was pretty intoxicated and wanted to make a statement.”
However, Hoadley said, it’s important for the community to “remain vigilant, and watch their surroundings.”
Patrons’ response in the restaurant, to quickly leave, was probably the right thing for them to do, he said. At the same time, he said, “We don’t want to panic the public. This story kind of snowballed.”
Just because it’s Idaho, it doesn’t mean a terrorist act couldn’t happen here.
Caldwell police Lt. Joey Hoadley
A COUNTRY ON EDGE
“On some level, you can’t blame people for reacting the way they did in Caldwell. It has been a very tense time, especially after Orlando, San Bernardino, Istanbul,” said Pinto. Bars and cafes, once places of safety and good times, have recently become associated with terrorism and violence, she added.
One factor is that Islam, for many Americans, is still a foreign religion, said Pinto — despite some deep and complicated ties here. Approximately 20 percent of Africans brought to the U.S. as slaves were Muslims. Morocco, a predominantly Islamic country, was the first to recognize the U.S. after its independence from Britain. Islamic groups and neighborhoods have flourished in U.S. cities for decades.
But some still see Muslims and the practice of Islam as new arrivals to the U.S. and “as a blanket thing, a scary thing,” said Pinto. Here Christianity is the majority religion and people feel they understand its concepts. They’re able to make distinctions between mainstream Christianity and fringe groups in a way they’re not yet able to do with mainstream Islam and terrorists, she said.
If you hear about a right-wing KKK member shooting someone, you don’t become afraid of all Christians.
Professor Karen Pinto
These are things she’s trying to dispel in the classes she teaches, including a new class in the fall about Islam and the Quran. She’s heartened that while many students come to class with biases about and preconceptions of Islam, their curiosity and desire to understand the faith more accurately are stronger.
“They really do want to know,” she said.
Hakeem Muhamad, former president of the Boise State Muslim Student Association, graduated a year ago after studying international business and finance. Even for him, he said, knowing when a situation is dangerous or how to react is hard.
He understands people’s struggles to identify genuine dangers. “Because that could be anyone. In the Orlando shooting, the man was someone who people knew, who frequented that club.”
In the current climate, he wears Western clothes and blends in. But he said his mother gets looks when she wears her head scarf to the grocery store.
“She’s OK with that, but if looks ever changed to actions, that’s when it’s scary. And I can’t be next to my mom, protecting her all the time,” Muhamad said.
Both Pinto and Muhamad noted that most victims of Muslim terrorists are also Muslims. As a U.S. citizen and a Kurd, a member of a persecuted ethnic minority, Muhamad would be a prime target for the Islamic State were he to return to Iraq.
“I wish I had all the answers. Is it the right thing to apprehend the person, or run for your life? It’s all just up in the air,” he said.
Hoadley and other officers were relieved by one thing that didn’t happen that night in Caldwell. Police were concerned about the number of people in the restaurant who might have been carrying concealed weapons, and might have reacted to whatever threat they felt Bell posed. Idaho’s new law allowing concealed carrying without a permit went into effect on July 1, the day Bell climbed onto the bar.
“It was definitely something that was on our minds,” said Hoadley. It is fortunate, he added, that the evening ended peacefully for everyone involved.