Pixel Tracker

Sunday, March 24 , 2019, 1:02 pm | A Few Clouds 60º


Joe Conason: What We Learned From Times Square

Right-wing pundits are missing the real lessons of the attempted attack

Within hours after the car bomb fizzled in Times Square, the nonstop noise resumed on Fox News and talk radio, warning that President Barack Obama’s 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.

Joe Conason
Joe Conason

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 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 can’t find — or even invent — a serious complaint about the Times Square incident. Perhaps that’s 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 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 the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks 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 too often what passes for patriotism in this country now.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

Support Noozhawk Today!

Our professional journalists work tirelessly to report on local news so you can be more informed and engaged in your community. This quality, local reporting is free for you to read and share, but it's not free to produce.

You count on us to deliver timely, relevant local news, 24/7. Can we count on you to invest in our newsroom and help secure its future?

We provide special member benefits to show how much we appreciate your support.

I would like give...
Great! You're joining as a Red-Tailed Hawk!
  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.