Another First Amendment ghost: Did debate with an evangelical trigger Farook?

It's the question that everyone keeps asking police officers and FBI leaders: What caused Syed Rizwan Farook to dig into his massive arsenal of pipe bombs and ammunition and fly into action? What was the motive for the massacre in San Bernardino?

One question leads to another. Was this workplace violence? Was he provoked, somehow? In his mind, was he on a mission from Allah? Was Farook planning an even larger act of violence against unbelievers and crusaders, but something at that office party made him fly into action on this day?

From the beginning, I have been curious to know more details about the "holiday party" that Farook briefly attended, before leaving (some witnesses said in anger) and returning with his wife Tashfeen Malik to slaughter his co-workers.

News coverage has mentioned that the room contained Christmas trees and other decorations. In a previous post, I asked if there was a Menorah in the room, to mark the Hanukkah season. Was there a moment when someone lit the Menorah and perhaps said a prayer? Did someone sing a Christmas carol?

Another question raised in online talks among the GetReligionistas: What was on the menu? Were there foods in the room -- pork, for example -- that a Muslim would consider impure?

However, some journalists have now locked in on a specific question linked to the massacre. What did Nicholas Thalasinos say and when did he say it?

Yes, there is a chance that the First Amendment is going to take a hit in discussions of his massacre, since there was an evangelical Christian present -- a Messianic Jew, to be precise -- who had previously talked about politics and faith with Farook. To make matters worse, Thalasinos may have criticized Islam and suggested that Farook needed to convert to Christianity. Thalasinos was even an NRA supporter.

Was this the trigger (speech) on the gun?

Let's start with a key passage in the Los Angeles Times coverage, which opens with an interview with the man's wife, Jennifer Thalasinos.

"My husband was just a very devout believer," she said. "He became born again a couple of years ago and because of that I had a very strong faith, so I know that he's in a much better place."
She added that her husband evangelized many. "He wanted to serve the lord and bring more people to the lord."
She said that her husband was aware Farook was Muslim, but had never mentioned that his co-worker had any extreme views. "If he would have ... my husband would have had something to say."
Thalasinos said she had heard that before the shooting, there may have been an argument at the party. She described her husband as very outspoken about Islamic terrorism, with strong conservative politics.
"I'm sure that he went down fighting and protecting people," she said. 

The Los Angeles ABC affiliate noted that there would have been visual triggers as well, centering on how Thalasinos dressed for work.

She described her husband as a "gentleman inspector," who always dressed up for his job with red suspenders, a Star of David tie-clip and traditional Jewish tassels over his pants.
"To have this happen, this man, though I know he was targeting like everyone in that group, but I'm sure he was targeting my husband because of his faith and I really feel like my husband was martyred," Jennifer Thalasinos said.

The Times of Israel added additional details:

Nicholas Thalasinos, 52, passionately defended Israel, and actively debated religion in online forums and in person, his friends said. Only two weeks ago, Thalasinos was having a heated on-the-job discussion about the nature of Islam with Syed Rizwan Farook, his fellow restaurant inspector and the man police identified as the shooter.
Thalasinos’ friend, Kuuleme Stephens, told The Associated Press that she happened to call him while he was working with Farook, and that he brought her into their debate, loudly declaring that Farook “doesn’t agree that Islam is not a peaceful religion.” She heard Farook counter that Americans don’t understand Islam, and Thalasinos responded by saying “I don’t know how to talk with him,” she said.
Stephens said she didn’t sense any pending violence at the time, and it is not clear if their debates factored in the attack. Stephens said Thalasinos did not believe his co-worker would ever turn violent.

But it was a live CNN interview with Jennifer Thalasinos that has really caused discussion about this issue, in part because of its relentless focus on evangelistic speech.

Of course, one person's evangelism is another person's nasty proselytizing. Some hear the word evangelism and immediately picture highly offensive arguments in which one person simply will not stop talking, turning the encounter into an offensive confrontation.

What happened in this case? The bottom line: At this point journalists do not know.

However, the conservative commentary site called did the following mash-up on the content of this CNN interview. noted:

In other words, CNN wanted to know if he was asking for it. To save some time on the transcript, here are the key points in the clip:
Did he evangelize with this guy Farook?
What has he said [about Muslims in the past]?
Do you think he talked to Farook about that?
He made a point of talking to everyone he worked with at the health department about his beliefs about being born again.

I had the same response -- in a milder form -- when I watched the interview last night. I also do not remember, in that coverage, any mention of Israel and the fact that Thalasinos was a Messianic Jew.

In addition to basic First Amendment issues, there are crucial questions here about workplace behavior. I am sure that this state government office, in a liberal state, has a strong policy on speech in the workplace. If Thalasinos did anything that crossed the line, something beyond conversations over coffee, I would imagine that this information will come out.

So we are back to the "holiday" party, a setting that may or may not have been considered a "work environment." If I was covering this story, I would want to know as much as possible about that party, perhaps seeking out employees who had attended these events in the past. And what about that menu? What about the decorations?

UPDATE: Some additional material on Thalasinos from a Washington Post feature on the victims, offering some additional content on his faith and personal style. This feature is must reading for today.

Another who died was Nicholas Thalasinos, 52, who attended ... Shiloh Messianic Congregation. Fellow parishioners described Thalasinos as a big but gentle man with a great passion for his faith.
He had just emerged from an incredible three-year period in his life, friends say, during which he converted to the Messianic Jewish movement of Christianity. He had lost 100 pounds after struggling with diabetes and recently had a possibly cancerous growth removed.
Most poignantly, however, friends say, he had just renewed his vows with his wife, Jennifer, in a Jewish-style marriage ceremony after being married to her for more than a decade, said Olga Fry, the photographer for the ceremony.

IMAGE: From Facebook.

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