Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Lessons From The Failed Times Square Bombing?

Fred Kaplan usually works from a very simple premise: everything Bush ever did is wrong. That explains this piece in Slate in which he looks at the failed Times Square bombing and and sees another chance to poke Bush (via the equally despised Dick Cheney). The problem is, his three points sacrifice logic on the altar of politics.

First, Kaplan claims, the terror attack proves that Cheney was wrong to champion the idea of dealing with terrorism as an act of war rather than a criminal act.
Today’s Wall Street Journal recounts nine foiled terrorist attempts in New York since 2002. In almost every case, they were thwarted as a result of arrests and informants.

Similarly, from 2001 to 2008, according to data compiled by George W. Bush’s (emphasis his) Justice Department, federal prosecutors convicted 319 terrorists—195 of whom were associated with al-Qaida or other jihadist groups—in civilian criminal courts. Only three were convicted by military tribunal, and two of those three were sent back to their native countries and subsequently freed.
In other words, his own article undermines the idea that the Bush administration was hellbent on fighting terrorism with only the tools of war. Certainly the administration favored military options where they were deemed warranted (whether the “deeming” was correct is a differnt argument). But the idea that the Bush years were ones of failed military policy at the expense of arresting terrorists and trying them in civilian courts is disproved by the article’s own statistics.

Ah, but I’m conflating Cheney’s views with the actions of the Bush administration, one might say. Perhaps Cheney was quietly fuming at each and every one of those 319 convictions, agitating for troops on the ground instead of subpoenas in the courtroom. The problem with that argument is that Kaplan over the years has made no effort to hide his belief that Cheney pulled the strings in the Bush administration, with Bush himself merely a dumb puppet. Note here, where Kaplan puts forth the idea that Bush watered down the powers of the central director of intelligence at the behest of Cheney. Or here, in an article about the appointment of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations, where Kaplan writes, “Cheney put him up for this job, and what Cheney wants usually goes.” Or here, in an article describing how “Cheney and his entourage” were able to scuttle plans to close down the prison at Guantanmo Bay back in 2005 over the support of virtually everyone else in the administration.

Are we to believe that Cheney (who did indeed wield power and influence in the job of Vice President, certainly moreso than his predecessor), who (according to Kaplan) singlehandedly stripped power from one of Bush’s appointments, got John Bolton named UN ambassador, kept Guantanamo open, and lived in a world where “what [he] wants usually goes” was unable to direct policy on terrorism? I mean, 319 convictions is a lot (though not enough to warrant praise from Kaplan — he instead quotes it incredulously, like it was some sort of oversight on the part of the Bush administration). Was Cheney a puppet master except for this one time?

Next up in the list of things we now “know” to be true is the idea that “self-taught urban scholar and activist” Jane Jacobs was right when she posited that we have nothing to fear in urban areas because “a busy sidewalk is a safe sidewalk”. Obvious examples to the contrary, even the unsuccessful bombing attempt doesn’t support this idea. The bomb didn’t fail because a street vendor discovered it. It failed because the detonator didn’t ignite with enough power to trigger the hoped-for explosion. This is not to belittle the efforts of the vendor, the NYPD or any of the other actors who responded to the incident. They did their jobs and did them well (including the vendor, who performed a civic duty others may or may not have rendered in the same situation). It is to say however that “all’s well that ends well” doesn’t apply to terrorism. It smacks of the same air of obliviousness that Janet Napolitano exhibted when she said of the failed Christmas Day 2009 bombing attempt, “the system worked”, despite that plot’s failure also hinging on a malfunctioning detonator.

Finally, we come to the final lesson learned: that security cameras on every street corner are something we should think about embracing (think London’s extensive network of closed-circuit television cameras). Kaplan notes that a camera near the scene may have captured the bomber. The video, which showed a man setting a bag down next to a parking meter and removing an outer garment before picking up the bag and continuing on, may or may not show the bomber. Regardless, how would this have prevented the attack? It wouldn’t, of course. The camera is great for recording events, not so great at preventing them.

Even if we followed London’s model exactly, there’s no reason to believe it would deter terrorism. It hasn’t helped reduce more mundane crimes in London, after all. If it won’t stop car thieves and purse snatchers, why would it stop a terrorist?

I don’t know why this particular article aroused my ire enough to address it. Kaplan writes this sort of tunnel-vision inspired stuff every day. I normally avoid reading his articles at Slate for this very reason. Goodness knows there are enough hyperpartisan authors out there (cue the ‘how ironic’ comments) on both sides of the aisle. Maybe I’m just having a bad day. Maybe the irony of someone who spoke out against Bush administration violations of civil rights (both real and imagined) so blithely writing “[a]nd city dwellers (as well as tourists) may have come to accept that privacy cannot be presumed when they’re out on public streets” was too much.

(Crossposted from Say Anything)

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