Terrorism is the revenge of the weak against the strong. Enemies who cannot defeat a nation’s military prey on the fears of the public, hoping to goad the government into violent retaliations.
Historically, this cycle has caused societies to become little better than their attackers. This was the goal of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, until he was killed in 2006; the goal of Osama bin Laden, until he was killed in 2012; and the continuing objective of ISIL and al Qaeda, the terrorist organizations they formed. But the past weekend’s attacks on New York City and New Jersey show that, in the face of too many tragedies, America’s response to terrorism has improved with practice.
Elected officials largely took the threat seriously without stoking public alarm, leaking details of the investigation, or stigmatizing Muslim Americans. (The same cannot be said of Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate.) Federal, state, and local officials worked together efficiently. New York governor Andrew Cuomo sent National Guard troops. The Federal Bureau of Investigation sent special agents. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio had the New York City Police, probably the best anti-terrorist force in the country, sharing information. Each response team reinforced the others to ensure public safety.
US president Barack Obama offered a measured response that put the threat in context for the country: “At moments like this, it is important to remember what the terrorists and violent extremists are trying to do. They are trying to hurt innocent people. They also want to inspire fear in all of us, disrupt the way we live, to undermine our values. We all have a role to play as citizens in making sure we don’t succumb to that.”
When additional bombs were located, law enforcement employed technology to good effect, attempting to defuse the bomb by robot rather than a human. (The bomb exploded in the process, destroying the robot.) Once in possession of an unexploded bomb, law enforcement was able to identify the maker by his fingerprint and enlisted the help of the public to find him utilizing the Wireless Emergency Alert system in the New York area. And although the suspect provoked a firefight and shot two cops, police captured the suspect alive.
All this is an admirable model of how to fight terrorists without damaging society in the process. Governmental and law enforcement authorities deserve our appreciation and admiration for the restraint with which they conducted an investigation amidst the high stakes of the United Nations General Assembly, which brought so many foreign leaders to New York.
And without disrespecting those injured in the attacks, or the murderous intent of the person or persons responsible for the bombs, it is worth acknowledging the unusual events which helped thwart the plots and capture the culprit(s). It turns out that, in the case of the New York attack, a far worse outcome was averted after thieves took the suitcase holding the bomb, inadvertently disabling it.
Meanwhile, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, two homeless men found the backpack containing another bomb and alerted local police. Mayor Christian Bollwage paid poignant tribute to these men, saying “people go through life on the edge in a very difficult position yet they probably saved hundreds of lives.”
So, along with strong law enforcement officials, it appears that thieves and the homeless contributed to America’s first line of defense. Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor who united Germany in the 1870s, famously said that God has a special providence for drunks, babies, and the United States of America. Perhaps he was right. Or perhaps this is what true national security looks like as we figure out how to fight terrorists while preserving what is beautiful about American society.