Parsing Fact From Fiction in Times Square

Like so many other Americans, I spent part of last Saturday night reading about a seemingly homegrown terrorist who had botched a bombing attempt in midtown Manhattan. Only I was reading aloud from my novel, American Subversive, in a Washington, D.C., bookstore, oblivious to the analogous real-world events that were—exactly then—playing themselves out in Times Square. When I saw the news, I almost couldn’t process it. The coincidence was eerie and discomfiting. Life wasn’t supposed to imitate art so closely. Especially when the “art” in question was a novel about domestic terrorist attacks set in New York City in the summer of 2010.

But why was I surprised? The themes in the book hadn’t come out of thin air. Rather, they were very much rooted in reality. The book’s main character is a 29-year-old policy analyst named Paige Roderick whose beloved brother has died fighting in Iraq. Devastated, she returns home to North Carolina and soon falls in with a group of environmental extremists modeled loosely on the Weather Underground. The group’s leader is a charismatic radical named Keith Sutter, who understands the symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the media, and believes in operating on grand stages. And so New York.

I watched the grainy Times Square video again and again. It was like something from a Don DeLillo novel. A man takes off his shirt in the middle of a crowded sidewalk and starts walking. Just before he disappears off-screen, he turns and looks at an SUV—the SUV—and then he’s gone. That’s all there is. Though I, of course, saw more. He was white. He was in his early 40s. He seemed American. He was Keith Sutter. Or could have been.

I marveled, for a moment, at my prescience. I’d seen it all, years ago: America’s political center dissolving, discourse ceding to discord, a nation of people talking past each other, each side more vehement in their beliefs, until their words lead to action, then violence. On Sunday afternoon, The Wall Street Journal called me to do an interview, and I said something ridiculous about the future—my version of it—having arrived. But had it really?

Lost to me was the plain fact that the Times Square incident bore little resemblance to the fictional bombing in American Subversive. For one, the device in my book actually detonates—in an office suite above Barneys on Madison Avenue. The intended target is a shady oil investment company, though the bomb actually explodes on the wrong floor. It’s a mistake that makes Paige start to question her decisions, and allows the novel’s other protagonist, a failed journalist–turned–gossip blogger, to track her down.

But there was a much greater threat to my clairvoyance: the Times Square incident itself. The facts didn’t add up. If my hold on the future was slipping, my understanding of history was still strong. I had read dozens of books about domestic terrorism. I had spoken with radicals past and present, pored over communiqués and manifestos, watched films and documentaries. And I had learned an important characteristic about our particular brand of extremism. Americans like people to know what they’re fighting for (and against). The history of domestic terrorism in New York is a history of specific strikes where the intended targets are clearly identifiable. The Weathermen planted bombs at police precincts, courthouses and federal buildings. FALN set its sights on insurance companies and the Defense Department. In 2008, the Times Square bicycle bomber—who is still at large—blew the front door off an Army recruiting station. With a few exceptions (FALN’s bombing of Faunces Tavern being one), New York’s particular brand of extremist has gone out of his or her way to spare lives while leaving behind no questions of motive.

Last Saturday night’s fiasco contained none of these traits. It was amateurish and far more random. There was no obvious physical target. And the only goal, it seemed, was to kill and injure civilians. In other words, the botched bombing carried many features of individual (i.e., non-group-backed) Islamic fundamentalist attacks—the zealot loner, determined but disorganized, driven less by some specific grievance than by an overwhelming hatred of America itself.

So it should have come as no surprise when I woke up Tuesday morning to find that a Pakistani-born man named Faisal Shahzad had been arrested at J.F.K. on a plane bound for Dubai. The clues had been there the whole time, but I hadn’t put them together. Shahzad was a 30-year-old naturalized American and, therefore, could be considered a domestic terrorist. But he wasn’t my kind of homegrown threat. Mine operated out of broad-minded idealism, not narrow-minded fanaticism. Mine planned their actions carefully and endlessly debated the consequences. Mine were more glamorous, more intellectual, more daring. Mine were also fictional.

The real thing was a pitiable disappointment. An amateur who bought the wrong fertilizer at the feed store, who built a bomb from an online booklet. And still, he got close. Absolutists are a dangerous bunch, especially those acting seemingly alone. Perhaps they’re our next great threat. But what do I know? If so, American citizens and law enforcement will once again have to adapt. I write make-believe—a distinction I’d do well to remember.

David Goodwillie is the author of the novel
American Subversive and the memoir Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. Parsing Fact From Fiction in Times Square