The Times Square bomb frenzy

May 7, 2010

In the aftermath of the failed Times Square bomb plot, politicians and law enforcement officials are preparing for a new assault on our civil liberties, reports Eric Ruder.

THE FAILED Times Square car bombing in early May prompted a renewed media frenzy about the "terrorist threat" as details about the suspect and the plot trickled out.

The questions were all over cable TV news: Are there other naturalized U.S. citizens from Pakistan waiting to strike? Was the Pakistan Taliban behind the attempted bombing? Where did Faisal Shahzad, a Connecticut resident who has reportedly confessed and is cooperating with authorities, get his "training"?

Politicians and security officials weren't waiting for answers, however, before they offered a battery of "counterterrorism measures."

New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said that if it's impossible to put enough cops on the street to watch every location, there should be more video cameras installed to eavesdrop on everyone. Of course, video cameras trained on Times Square had no role in tracking down Shahzad.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked Congress to block the sale of firearms and explosives to those on terrorist watch lists, while other politicians focused on travelers buying plane tickets with cash.

An explosives technician investigates the SUV found in Times Square in New York City
An explosives technician investigates the SUV found in Times Square in New York City

Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) argued that terrorism suspects should be stripped of American citizenship rights--a response to the decision to advise Shahzad of his Miranda rights that entitle him to remain silent and be represented by an attorney.

But if people can be stripped of their rights as citizens based on nothing more than suspicion, what good are such rights for anyone?

THE FOCUS on tactical measures to foil future terror plots made up the bulk of the wall-to-wall media commentary--and consequently left unexamined some of the most basic and important facts about the failed bomb plot.

First of all, the billions upon billions of dollars spent on "safeguarding the homeland" proved useless in foiling this plot. Shahzad's crude "bomb"--some propane tanks and gasoline rigged to ignite by some alarm clocks and commercial firecrackers--started smoking, catching the attention of street vendors who alerted police.

Two vendors in particular--Lance Orton and Dwayne Jackson, both Black veterans of the Vietnam War--have been credited with reporting the suspicious car. But a third vendor--Alioune Niass, a Muslim immigrant from Senegal--is almost certainly the first person to have noticed the vehicle. For some reason, the media haven't given him the same attention.

Second, the tactics used to track down Shahzad were entirely conventional. The Vehicle Identification Number had been removed from the dashboard of the car containing the bomb, but was quickly retrieved from another part of the car. The vehicle's prior owner was tracked down, and Shahzad's identity was revealed, along with his whereabouts, once his e-mail address was tracked.

In other words, both the immense amount of money spent by the government on national security and the equally costly surrender of civil liberties since 9/11 contributed nothing to this investigation.

In fact, despite the fortune spent on giving the national security state more measures to address terrorism, the biggest problem that investigators tracking Shahzad had to contend with was...leaks to the media by NYPD officials and FBI agents. This tipped off Shahzad to the investigation, prompting him to flee.

What accounts for the leaks? "While the NYPD and the FBI talk publicly about how seamlessly they work together, the truth is there's a lot of professional rivalry," according to a National Public Radio report on May 6. "Get detectives or agents out for a beer and one of their favorite pastimes is griping about something the NYPD did or something the FBI missed. Because of that, there tend to be a lot of leaks."

Also lost in the furious media speculation was the stark contrast between the supposedly "lethal threat" of the Pakistan Taliban and various other terrorist organizations, and the incompetent nature of the Times Square bomb plot.

After leaving the scene, Shahzad discovered he had left behind the keys to a getaway car and had to take a train home. And if even a fraction of the leaks to the media by law enforcement officials are to be believed, Shahzad left behind a massive trail of evidence and is now providing information to his interrogators, including information about his contacts in Pakistan--hardly the behavior of a hardened militant.

In truth, the explosive device that damaged the Armed Forces Recruiting Station in Times Square in 2008 was far more destructive, but far less discussed--at least once speculation subsided that the bombing had been carried out by "foreign terrorists." That's no doubt because the lack of a "Muslim extremist" involved made it a less compelling news story.

TERRORIST ATTACKS such as the one Shahzad allegedly attempted are to be condemned. Had the car bomb gone off, its victims would have been ordinary people, completely innocent of the crimes of U.S. imperialism that apparently motivated Shahzad.

Such attacks also provide the pretext for the government to crack down on civil liberties, and they undermine domestic opposition to the U.S. government's military adventures, including its secret war in Pakistan--at a time when a majority of Americans oppose U.S. involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, such attacks are the predictable consequence of U.S. wars on people halfway around the world. Whether the plots are as primitive as the Times Square one or much more lethal, they are the inevitable "blowback" against the incessant drive of U.S. imperialism to dominate the world--from Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond.

The war in Central Asia--in Afghanistan, and now spreading into Pakistan--is causing death and suffering among people who never had any reason to oppose the U.S. Pakistani authorities themselves--remember, they are U.S. allies in the "war on terror"--reported that in 2009, only five confirmed militants were among approximately 700 people killed in 44 Predator drone attacks carried out by the U.S. military.

The anger that such senseless killing of innocent civilians has stirred in Pakistan continues to smolder.

Yet Shahzad's relatives in Pakistan were still stunned to think that Faisal might have played a role in the Times Square bomb attempt. One speculated that he had been framed. Others noted that his exposure to anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. and his evolving views about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq had changed him.

''When he was here, he was not religious-minded," said Nasir Khan, a relative in the family's village of Mohib Banda. "But he was when he came back from the United States."

Shahzad's disaffection also appears to have been accelerated by the sense that he had nothing left to lose--a sentiment shared by millions of Americans whose lives have been shattered by the Great Recession.

Shahzad, the son of a retired senior Pakistani Air Force officer, came to the U.S. 10 years ago, earned advanced degrees and started a family--all before he turned 30. But his American Dream had begun to fade. His house recently went into foreclosure, and he returned his family to Pakistan.

There is obviously more to the story that we don't yet know about Shahzad as an individual. But it's equally obvious that the scale of U.S. killing and mayhem in Afghanistan and Pakistan will lead people to turn to desperate, if counterproductive, measures.

That's why it's urgent to build a vibrant antiwar movement that can challenge the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and its secret war in Pakistan--as well as a struggle of working people to reverse the assault on living standards.

Otherwise, politicians will be able to feed Americans a steady diet of fear, combined with the claim that they can "protect" us--so long as we surrender enough civil liberties to the national security state.

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