What We Learned in Times Square

Within hours after the car bomb fizzled in Times Square, the nonstop noise resumed on Fox News and talk radio, warning that the Obama administration is failing to protect us. Evidently, the president and his aides don’t say “terror” and “terrorism” sufficiently often to make it go away, according to the professional noisemakers. If you believe that kind of nonsense, then you are listening too much to the professional noisemakers and may have caused damage to your mental health.

It is not surprising that the right-wing media is preoccupied with ideological clowning and cheap partisanship, even at a moment when hundreds of Americans just barely escaped peril. This vapid entertainment was captured perfectly in a Fox News video segment (which can be viewed on the Media Matters for America Web site). At the very moment Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson groused that government officials “refuse to say the word ‘terror,’” the electronic scroll directly beneath her image reported that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had indeed referred to the car bomb as “a potential terrorist attack.”

Such semantic carping suggests that the right-wing talking heads cannot find or even invent a real complaint about the Times Square incident. Perhaps that is because the response of government at all levels so far has been effective. The blocks surrounding the bomb were swiftly evacuated, and the bomb squad quickly disarmed the device. Then the suspected perp was apprehended within 48 hours, just as he seemed to have been attempting escape on a flight to Dubai.

So whether government officials talk about terrorism—or use it to frighten the public, as Bush administration officials so often did—seems to have little to do with whether they can adequately protect us.
The real lessons from the latest attempted attack on New York are less political and more practical. The first line of defense is an alert citizenry, a message that New Yorkers absorbed years ago. The next is a highly trained police force that can respond instantly and effectively—and is constantly evaluating, anticipating and monitoring potential threats.

Under the leadership of Commissioner Raymond Kelly, the New York City Police Department developed those capacities—in part because he lacked confidence in the federal counterterrorism bureaucracy.
As Christopher Dickey reported in his excellent 2009 book Securing the City, Mr. Kelly created a special counterterrorism force that ventured well beyond the traditional boundaries of urban policing. With agents working in cities abroad, front companies and community surveillance, the NYPD gathers copious intelligence that has thwarted numerous plots against the city, including schemes to bomb synagogues and subway stations.

What is now known as “intelligence-led policing” has become a model for the nation and the world.

Yet this time, the car bomb came close to completing its murderous mission despite the vigilance of New York’s people and the skill and bravery of New York’s cops. The reason is quite simple: There is no foolproof way to stop every single terrorist attack, even in countries that permit far less freedom of movement and association than the United States. Many of the worst attacks have been carried out in authoritarian countries, such as Russia, where the state security forces do not hesitate to use intrusive and brutal methods.

Still, New York’s experience in protecting itself against an enemy that conspires to kill its people every day is instructive. Rather than stigmatize Muslims through profiling, as various numbskulls in Congress and on TV would recommend, the city has cultivated relationships with the mainstream Islamic community. Among the critical lessons that Kelly learned from 9/11 was the importance of language skills—so he and his deputies have recruited scores of officers who speak useful dialects of Arabic and Pashto, among others. Another key lesson was that the most likely terrorist recruits were young men who had withdrawn from the local mosques, which don’t promote jihadism.

Unfortunately, learning from New York is scarcely on the minds of right-wing pundits, some of whom even seem disappointed when the terrorists fail. But that kind of nihilistic rage is what passes for patriotism too often these days.

jconason@observer.com What We Learned in Times Square