Publisher's Note — May 19, 2010, 9:22 am

Fizzled Bomb Sparks Growth for Politicians

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the May 19, 2010 Providence Journal.

More than two weeks after the event, I’m baffled that the news media insist on calling the attempted car bombing in Times Square a “failed” terrorist attack. Just because Faizal Shahzad failed to kill anybody doesn’t mean he didn’t succeed in achieving important political objectives for politicians and terrorists everywhere, including some in our own country.

For one thing, Shahzad has handed the Obama administration renewed justification for pouring billions of dollars into its “counterinsurgency” war in Afghanistan — just when even the most hawkish types were questioning the president’s sanity in backing Hamid Karzai, the narco-CEO and Pashtun tribal leader who barely rules Kabul. Karzai’s vote-stealing as well as his complaints about American interference in his government’s attempts to negotiate with the Taliban were not endearing him to Washington’s foreign-policy establishment. Until Shahzad’s incompetent action on May 1, Karzai (aided by his drug kingpin half-brother) was managing to undermine the whole American war effort: his refusal to stay on message interfered with the current drivel that national security requires more volunteers for the army and greater vigilance by the citizenry.

Politicians like Obama thrive on the rhetoric of national emergency. Like Bush, he appreciates a relatively safe threat, so he had to be thrilled to be making congratulatory calls to the two T-shirt vendors who had noticed the smoking SUV and alerted the cops.

He also must have been delighted to be able to thank his friends in the Pakistani government for rounding up some “Taliban” suspects who had somehow eluded their notice until Shahzad struck. Deeply corrupt and often uncooperative, Pakistan’s governing oligarchy was similarly becoming a poor public-relations partner in America’s anti-terrorist effort. How could Obama sell Congress on more aid to Islamabad when Pakistan’s intelligence service was leaking reports to the U.S. press arguing that NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan was creating more terrorism and strengthening the Taliban — inside Pakistan?

Now, with the “terror front” again brought to the crossroads of America (Times Square is a short subway ride away from World Trade Center site), the whole rationale for expending lives and money on a fruitless and counterproductive foreign policy has been revived. Shahzad’s bomb attempt is also a boon to the president’s re-election campaign, which, like George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, needs an external threat as a plant needs sunlight and carbon dioxide. When the president sounds decisive in the face of “terror,” it always plays well on the evening news.

But such political photosynthesis doesn’t benefit just a sitting president. Other, lesser public figures with authoritarian cravings suck in the oxygen produced by the “terror threat” like so many emphysema sufferers.

In New York, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, backed by his billionaire boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has been steadily wearing away at civil liberties since the huge antiwar demonstrations in February 2003 and anti-Bush protests at the Republican Convention in 2004. With Bush under attack, Kelly and Bloomberg twice came to the president’s defense. During the huge antiwar gathering that preceded the “pre-emptive” invasion of Iraq, they succeeded in confining more than 100,000 demonstrators to an area near the United Nations, which prevented a real march that would have gotten greater media coverage. At the convention that re-nominated Bush more than a year later, Kelly simply threw out the Bill of Rights and sent his men to arrest about 1,800 anti-Bush activists, many of whom were simply standing around with signs and threatening no one (90 percent of the cases were dropped).

While the more than 50 civil-rights suits stemming from Kelly’s convention round up drag on against the city, New York’s top cop has moved into new realms of unconstitutional behavior with a “random” stop-and-frisk campaign aimed mostly at black and Latino teenagers. At the same time, New York’s finest have extended their crime-fighting techniques into the public schools, where they don’t hesitate to handcuff 12-year-old “terrorists.” As The New York Times’s Bob Herbert put it, Kelly’s forces are “determined to keep the city safe from sixth graders armed with magic markers.”

Truly, Kelly should hang a picture of Faizal Shahzad in his office at police headquarters, for the bungling bomber has single-handedly restored vigor and credibility to the policy of stop-and-frisk. So should Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Kelly’s partner in crime-fighting, who now proposes that the government be able to strip “terrorists” of their U.S. citizenship and ship them to the prison at Guantànamo Bay. How “involvement in a foreign terrorist organization” would be determined is unclear, but I’m sure Police Commissioner Kelly could be called upon for wise counsel.

Curiously, Mayor Bloomberg seemed ungrateful to Shahzad, although he did seize the occasion to praise “the most comprehensive and sophisticated counterterrorism operation of any local police force in the world” and escort Obama on a guided tour of the Real Time Crime Center at One Police Plaza. Instead of thanking Shahzad, the mayor chalked up the bombing attempt to insecurity by angry Muslims in repressive foreign countries: “There are some people around the world who find our freedom so threatening that they’re willing to kill themselves and others to prevent us from enjoying it.

“We’re not going to let them win,” he added. Presumably, Bloomberg wasn’t being ironic and doesn’t consider the freedom of assembly, the freedom to walk down the street unhindered if you’re 17 and black, or the freedom to misbehave in sixth grade without getting handcuffed to be among those liberties that have so affronted our enemies abroad.

Of course, Obama, Bloomberg, Lieberman and Kelly aren’t the only beneficiaries of Shahzad’s amateurish efforts on behalf of worldwide terrorism. In the end, what makes the Times Square bombing attempt such a success is that it gives the Taliban, and al-Qaida, exactly what they need to survive and recruit new members: an open-ended military occupation by Western infidels, who terrorize, kill and maim civilians in Kandahar and Fallujah; and the ongoing U.S. interrogation, brutalizing and peremptory jailing of terrorist suspects with Muslim and Arabic names.

Indeed, if Shahzad’s bomb had killed or wounded innocent bystanders at 45th Street and Seventh Avenue, some Americans might have gotten the idea that the evil foreigners were fighting back.

And they might have asked what we’re still doing in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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