May 8, 2010 in Opinion

Calm reactions diminish terrorists

Froma Harrop
 

It was the best possible terrorism outcome: several heroes and no victims. A prime suspect sitting in cuffs, and chinks in the national security armor exposed for correction. But while the attack on Times Square failed, the perpetrator did manage a small psychological victory – restirring the public’s fear. We should cut that win down to size.

All the political grandstanding over the reading of Miranda rights to alleged car-bomber Faisal Shahzad only raises the rewards for two-bit terrorists by super-sizing the threat they’re said to pose. For the record, the police and FBI used “the public safety exception” to grill Shahzad before telling him of his right to a lawyer and to remain silent.

CNN asked former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton whether he thought a potential terrorist should be Mirandized. He brushed off the question with: “Well, it seems to be working for us. We are a nation of laws.” Now that’s the tone of a man dealing with thugs.

The more orderly and calmly Americans react to the misfits who would do them harm, the more we diminish them. Treating apparent losers as scary enemies of the republic only blows air into their bubble of grandiosity.

Meanwhile, the public must steel itself for the terrorist outrage that will inevitably succeed. Americans had started relaxing in the decade following the Sept. 11 attacks. The numerous fizzled plots since then may have bred overconfidence.

Law enforcement and other first responders train for the day when they will have to deal with such tragedy. But ordinary Americans must also be ready: Their job will be to persevere in the wake of another terrorist outrage. Contemplating the mayhem that the SUV might have spread in the middle of Manhattan could help in that preparation.

There was something graphic about a car bomb smoking in the “crossroads of America” as police cleared out nearby stores and restaurants – one yelling in a McDonald’s to “calmly” grab your children and get the hell out. It provided a useful exercise in imagining what terrorism can do.

Had the bomb gone off, we’d be seeing very different headlines these days. In addition to the suspect’s biography from infancy on, we’d be reading about the victims and their lives. Fewer people would venture into crowded places, and there would be stories of Broadway theaters and other businesses suffering from a loss of customers.

A failed terrorist effort can usefully uncover flaws in the security apparatus without provoking the kind of hot-headed response that often follows an atrocity. The surprise this time was the ability of someone on the no-fly list to buy a ticket to Pakistan with cash and board the plane. To travelers who’ve been stripped of their mouthwash as they passed through airport security, this would seem a rather large oversight.

Shahzad got his ticket seven hours after his flagged name went on the list, and no one at Emirates airlines noticed. Oddly, airlines don’t have to report cash purchases, but Emirates did tell the Transportation Security Administration of Shahzad’s transaction, albeit hours after he was already in custody.

Apart from the horrific 1995 assault on innocents in Oklahoma City, American cities have largely been spared the deadly car bombings that plague the Mideast, Europe and Africa. But sometime, one of these shocking attacks is going to happen here, and Americans must be able to meet the challenge with self-control.

We can shrink the rewards of terrorism by not melting before the creeps who feed on our fear. In a country where such deadly attacks are still extraordinary, that will require some preparation.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for the Providence Journal.


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