Responsibility for the explosion Saturday evening in Chelsea—as well as the pressure cooker bomb found four blocks away and the explosive devices discovered in New Jersey—seems to belong to Ahmad Khan Rahami, a 28-year-old naturalized American who came here from Afghanistan. Whether he was acting alone, with others, directly or indirectly influenced by others we do not yet know. But within minutes of the events, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared them “intentional” but not the work of terrorists.
Of course, they were intentional; what else could they be? The creation and planting of a bomb is never accidental. As the Observer’s Micah Halpern eloquently put it:
“Intentionally placing two live bombs set to explode and intended to commit mass murder in a populated center of the most recognized city in the United States is terror. It does not matter if the perpetrator is part of a group or a lone wolf; it doesn’t matter if you are fighting for Islam or animal rights or if you are an anarchist. The definition is plain and simple. Using violence or the threat of violence to achieve a political end is terror.”
De Blasio’s remarks were not just inappropriate but indicative of a serious problem: an ideological blindness unwilling to recognize that America—and especially New York—will continue to be the target of extremists and enemies of all sorts.
The NYPD, FBI and other law enforcement groups are making quick progress—and certainly their identification and apprehension of Rahami was impressive work—and they are to be commended, even as it now appears that Rahami’s father told New Jersey police and the FBI in 2014 that he suspected his son had become a terrorist. But it is always better to prevent a terrorist act than to investigate one. Which means we have to be vigilant and at least one step ahead of those who wish us harm. And that demands better intelligence.
Just before Saturday night’s events, we were thinking about the minor ripple caused by the release of Oliver Stone’s newest movie, Snowden, and the misguided efforts of a handful of activists calling on President Barack Obama to pardon Snowden. Before the bombing, we were going to say that a pardon is not appropriate on legal or ethical grounds. Snowden likes to portray himself as a whistleblower. A Congressional investigating committee disagreed, concluding that he was a disgruntled employee whose actions Snowden caused “tremendous damage to national security.” Moreover, the documents he stole had nothing to do with programs affecting individual privacy interests.
Now, we want to add one more reason to the overwhelming case of why Snowden should be aggressively prosecuted and not be granted a pardon: common sense. We need to continue to improve our intelligence gathering and analysis. Congressionally authorized, court-approved intelligence operations are essential to protecting Americans and our national interests. Rather than hamstring the agencies responsible for this difficult job, Congress and the president should be assessing what additional measures are needed and appropriate. We do not yet know if more aggressive intelligence gathering would have prevented the Chelsea or New Jersey bombings. And we have no qualms with groups like the ACLU pushing back, arguing for greater protection of individual privacy. The balance between civil liberties and legitimate intelligence gathering and national security operations has always been a delicate one. But the debate should take place in the context of reality, not wishful thinking.