Tennessee Is the Capital of American Jihad
Tennessee seems an unlikely birthplace for American jihad. Yet long before the five U.S. service members were murdered this past week in Chattanooga, before the Boston Marathon bombers, the Fort Hood shooting or the rise of the Islamic State, it was another troubled teenager from the same state who embarked on a journey of jihad and ended in the first deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil after 9/11.
The road to jihad began here, where Highway 40 bisects the state Abraham Lincoln once called the “keystone of the southern arch,” heading southwest out of Nashville and Jackson and through endless miles of rich Mississippi delta before riding the steel scaffolding of the Hernando de Soto Bridge across the wide lazy waters.
Memphis is where the call-and-response songs of the cotton fields and the gospel hymns of the local black churches fused with the blues of the Southern chitlin’ circuit and the twang of country honky-tonks in the bars and music clubs of Beale Street, creating a powerful concoction that changed American music forever. And which, not incidentally, turned Memphis into a tourist mecca that Melvin Bledsoe’s company, Twin City Tours, is happy to service, transporting you to, among many other places, Stax Records soul music museum and Sam Phillips’ original Sun Studio (the “birthplace of rock ’n’ roll”), the late great B.B. King’s Blues Club and Jerry Lee Lewis’ Café and Honky Tonk—and, of course—Graceland.
A quiet man with chiseled features, slight of stature and with a deliberate diction rounded at the edges by a gentle Southern accent, Melvin Bledsoe has a politeness and direct manner that puts people at ease right away. During summers not so very long ago, Twin City customers were often greeted personally by a proud Melvin and his teenage son Carlos, who since he was 8 years old had been groomed to one day take over the expanding tour business. Carlos attended school at suburban Craigmont High (“Go Craigmont Chiefs!”), sandwiched between the Redeemed Christian Church of God and the nearby East Side Baptist Church. He played basketball at the high school and met his girlfriend and prom date at a local Baptist church. The Bledsoe family—father, mother, son and daughter—lived nearby in a tidy neighborhood of one- and two-story mostly brick houses, with small yards and, in the case of the Bledsoes, a front porch with rocking chairs and, at one end, a prominently displayed American flag.
A few years back, Melvin Bledsoe was living a black middle-class, Southern Baptist version of the American dream. Both of his children were college bound, a step up the socioeconomic ladder that Melvin’s own parents could never afford. The Bledsoes were a tightly knit family clasped in the bosom of a supportive and familiar community. And then a personal crisis opened the door to an utterly unfamiliar intruder, and an idea was planted in a wounded psyche that improbably blossomed into a dark and noxious ideology. And before they even understood the gathering peril, the Bledsoes’ American dream became a nightmare.
Somehow, in ways that a heartbroken Melvin Bledsoe even now doesn’t fully comprehend, his beloved son Carlos was transformed into a murderous jihadist, a hate-filled man who called himself Abulhakim Mujahid Mohammed.
Carlos, to a certain extent, was patient zero in the phenomenon of homegrown, lone-wolf terrorism, a scourge that struck the nation once again this past week, when another young man went on a shooting spree at a recruiting station in Tennessee. The parallels between the life stories of that alleged shooter, Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, and Carlos Bledsoe’s are chilling and, perhaps, instructive.
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