What We Learned from Times Square
Smart police tactics can halt terrorist attacks
It is not surprising that the right-wing media are
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
website). 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 serious 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 George W. 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, while
constantly evaluating, anticipating and monitoring potential threats.
Under the leadership of Commissioner Raymond Kelly,
the New York City Police Department developed those capacities, in no small
part because he lacked confidence in the federal counterterrorism bureaucracy.
As Christopher Dickey reported in his excellent 2009 book Securing the City, 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
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
Among the critical lessons that Kelly learned from
Sept. 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
Unfortunately, learning from New York is scarcely on the minds of
right-wing pundits, some of who even seem disappointed when the terrorists
fail. But that kind of nihilistic rage is too often what passes for patriotism
in this country now.