Times Square: The old question, 'Why?'

As it turns out, the Times Square bomb may not have been set by someone who was mad about Obamacare. As it turns out, the alleged links between the attempted bombing and the Pakistani Taliban -- which CBS initially called not credible -- may have been real.

So once again, journalists are playing catch up on a story that pivots on some of the central, haunting questions of this era: Why does this happen? Where is the line between moderate and non-violent forms of Islam and the radicalized forms that embrace (and even mandate) violence against infidels and even other Muslims that are labeled as blasphemers? How do reporters find this line without asking questions about doctrine and practice?

That's the subject lurking behind the opening paragraphs of this A1 Washington Post story, one of the first that I have seen that dares ask any religious questions about this event.

Before he was accused of building a bomb, Faisal Shahzad had disassembled his American life.

In June, he abruptly quit his job as a financial analyst. The three-bedroom, two-plus-bath house he shared with his wife and two children in Shelton, Conn., was put on the market. The young family that neighbors often saw playing outside was suddenly gone.

When Shahzad resurfaced in the United States in February, it appears to have been with a new purpose. He ignored the foreclosure filings of his mortgage lender, and, according to authorities, spent his money on a prepaid cellphone, tanks of propane and a used car.

OK, I'll ask. What precisely is an "American life"? What are its crucial elements? It looks like a suburban home in Connecticut, a wife and two kids are the crucial ingredients. Then again, it might have something to do with:

I hereby declare, on oath,

* that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen;

* that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. ...

And so forth and so on.

Never mind. It's time for the big questions:

Many details surrounding Shahzad's alleged attempt to bomb Times Square are hard to reconcile. Why would someone who spent a decade pursuing U.S. citizenship seek to bomb an American landmark and flee the country within a year of being naturalized? How could someone with a degree in computers, who authorities say admitted receiving bomb-making training in Pakistan, assemble such an unsophisticated and unsuccessful device?

But the most elusive question about Shahzad -- a man with no known history of violence or connection to militant Islam -- is the same one that often surfaces in terrorism plots: Why?

Now, reporters Greg Miller and Mary Beth Sheridan do appear to have asked some faith-based questions when talking with people who knew Shahzad and his family, such as former neighbor Mary Ann Galich:

Shahzad's wife, Huma Mian, often wore a veil and a robe, as did the family's female friends, Galich said. Shahzad wore suits or casual American standards such as khakis. ... In photos on social networking Web sites, Shahzad gazes at the camera with a trimmed beard and tight-lipped smile. In one, he wears a tan blazer and poses in front of a gothic cathedral -- presumably in New York City -- embracing his wife.

Huma Mian wears a scarf and jeans in the photo, her tight curls uncovered. Her whereabouts are unclear now, amid reports that she and the children are in Pakistan. She used to update her Facebook account frequently. Under "activities," she lists the laments of a young mother: "changing diapers, feeding milk, wiping drools, being sleep deprived."

Of course, superficial details may not matter.

In the past, it seemed that members of sleeper cells were trained to avoid visible signs of devout faith and practice, to blend in. So Huma Mian is veiled some of the time and not at others. What does that mean? Was this before or after her husband returned from what is alleged to have been a pivotal trip to Pakistan for terrorist training? Did the details of their life and faith change at that time? Before?

Meanwhile, there are biographical details that suggest family roots that may, or may not, be important. The 30-year-old Shahzad, the story tells us, was "from Pabbi, the main town of the Nowshera district in the northwest, near Peshawar, a city at the edge of the tribal region where al-Qaeda and other militant groups now hide." His father was in the Pakistani military.

Then there are the details about his erratic behavior and bomb-focused work once Shahzad returned to the United States. It seems clear that he returned with a mission. But was it a mission that he welcomed? Once again, why did a bright, educated computer professional build such a crude and flawed bomb?

At this stage we still have a story containing a huge gap, a gap between the citizenship oath and the smoking SUV in Times Square. If Shahzad did this, why? If he was reluctant to do this act, what was the lever that was pulled to force him to do it?

Why, indeed.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Those interested in the bloody and tragic history of Pakistan will want to check out this Wall Street Journal essay -- "Why Pakistan Produces Jihadists" -- by Sadanand Dhume.

Please respect our Commenting Policy