Of the many uncomfortable truths emerging from last week’s bombing and subsequent manhunt—including the fact that American cities are still vulnerable to Islamic terrorism—one of the most troubling but least talked-about is the fact that martial law may now become part of the municipal playbook.
It was not two immigrant brothers—“losers,” their uncle called them—who closed down Boston, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, put military vehicles in its streets, and sent men in helmets and flak jackets into peoples’ homes. It was our elected leaders: our local, state, and federal political officials and law-enforcement authorities. If any Bostonians objected to having their civil liberties trampled on, they were drowned out by their cheering neighbors who massed in the streets to celebrate the authorities who had turned their city into something resembling Fallujah under American military occupation.
And we may as well get used to it, because in the event of future terror attacks this reality is likely coming to your city, too. As Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia’s chief of police, said on Fox News Sunday of closing down a major American city, “Certainly I think it was genius.”
The consensus of smart commentators is that Ramsey is right: It’s the way we live now, and we better get used to the facts of modern life. Terror, Islamic rage, and the hysterical Twitter-fed public response to shootings, bombings, and threats, have made the ever more disruptive and repressive responses unavoidable. “What happened the other day in Boston unfortunately is not the exception,” says Richard Haass, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations. “This is not a one-off. This is a glimpse of the future. This is granular terrorism that 1, 2, 3 people can carry out. We live in a world where power is diffused. Where individuals are in turn empowered.”
In what Atlantic magazine correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg calls “the era of the suspicious package,” everything is indeed different now. As Tom Brokaw says, “You can’t get intel on the lone operator.” Terrorists “only have to be right once,” California Rep. Jane Harman intoned on the Sunday talk show circuit, also noting the importance of “bomb-sniffing dogs.” “Obviously,” she said, “next time, we will have more bomb-sniffing dogs.”
We might as well accept the truth here: If the safety, stability, and economic welfare of our cities depend on the thin, furry line of bomb-sniffing dogs, we’re in trouble. Similarly, much has been made of the fact that the FBI was warned by Russian intelligence that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a potentially dangerous character. But if we have to depend on the ability and willingness of foreign-security services to tell us about the activities, beliefs, and capabilities of people who live and work in major American cities, we’re in trouble.
Or rather, everyone is who doesn’t live in New York. Since 9/11, officials in New York have chosen to play offense rather than defense, by actively collecting intelligence about individuals and groups that might target their city. The NYPD has offices and liaison officers worldwide, including Paris, London, Amman, and Tel Aviv, but its most important collection work takes place in the five boroughs of New York, especially in those places most likely to know about or, worse, incubate potential Islamic terrorists: the city’s Muslim communities.
Obviously this is not going to stop every terrorist act, just like a cop walking his local beat is not going to stop every liquor-store hold-up in his precinct. But the Boston area’s local, state, and federal authorities surely would have profited from contacts with members of the Boston mosque where Tamerlan Tsarnaev raged against the imam for putting forth a non-Muslim—Martin Luther King, Jr.—as a positive role model. Had the authorities been alerted by those best placed to understand Tsarnaev’s actions as volatile and extreme—namely, Muslim community leaders—this intelligence might have prevented a murderous career.
We’re not talking about water-boarding American Muslims here, or shipping them off to Guantanamo. It’s collecting intelligence about potential problems in a community that is as keen as any other to be done with Islamic terrorism. Now, to be frank, the unhappy reality is that in some instances, conducting surveillance in Muslim communities may indeed be a violation of the civil liberties of some citizens (and indeed, the NYPD has taken a fair amount of criticism for its efforts because of this). But sending armed vehicles into the streets and putting entire cities under lockdown is also a violation of civil liberties. The fact that there will be more people like the Tsarnaev brothers means that we have hard choices ahead of us. The people who are forcing these choices on us are not liberals or conservatives, but terrorists.
The question then is, should a few suffer temporarily? Or should all Americans bear the burden permanently? Like all of democratic politics, it’s a trade-off and one that like gun control, gay marriage, and immigration merits a broad debate among Americans. The problem however is that virtually everywhere else except New York City, political leaders, local, state, and federal law authorities, as well as intellectuals and media figures have already made an unspoken trade-off: Rather than encroach in a limited fashion on the rights of Muslim Americans, all Americans must forfeit some of their liberties. Lock down Boston. Send SWAT teams into the streets. Use bomb-sniffing dogs. Spend tens of billions of dollars taking naked pictures of air travelers and searching grandmothers at airports. But whatever you do, don’t gather intelligence on the guy who trolls jihadist websites and then takes a six-month-long vacation in Dagestan.
It’s just more confused rhetoric from a political class, right and left, that lacks all clarity and discretion. Intelligence gathering in Muslim communities is a no-no, but it’s OK to use a drone to kill an American citizen in Yemen without judicial review or oversight. This makes no sense. It would help if America’s political establishment were able to tell the difference between politically incorrect violations of individual rights in the service of information-gathering to prevent attacks, and gross violations of the core rights to due process of law that they are sworn to protect.
It would also help if they could tell the difference between civilians and terrorists. Amazingly, Secretary of State John Kerry can’t tell the difference between the armed Turkish terrorists who were killed when they tried to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza in May 2010 and the four innocent people murdered in his hometown by the Tsarnaevs last Monday. At a press conference in Istanbul, Kerry said of the deaths aboard the Turkish-sponsored ship that ran the blockade, which was intended to keep arms from reaching Hamas: “I particularly say to the families of people who were lost in the incident: We understand these tragedies completely and we sympathize with them. … I have just been through the week of Boston and I have deep feelings for what happens when you have violence and something happens and you lose people that are near and dear to you.”
So, let’s get this straight: If you sail to break a blockade designed to keep missiles and guns out of the hands of Hamas, who are a group of murderous anti-Western religious fanatics who kill civilians in terror bombings, then you are the moral equivalent of the innocent people in Boston who lost their lives in a terror bombing, perpetrated by murderous fanatics who believe the very same things that Hamas believes. How would Kerry feel if after last week’s events the Turkish government sailed a flotilla of aid ships into Boston Harbor in support of the surviving Tsarnaev brother—and any associates who might still be at large? John Kerry needs to get it through his well-coiffed skull that it is the Boston Marathon bombers and Hamas who are the same people—and the civilians that they maim and kill are the victims.
And sadly, Kerry is not alone in his confusion. America has become a nation in political, moral, and now actual lockdown. And it needn’t be: Islamic terror is not a fact of life, nor is it an existential threat to the United States. It’s a vicious ideology that should be equally offensive to men, women, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and to politicians and commentators on the right and the left—and kudos to those like Andrew Sullivan who state it clearly. The violence and terror it gives rise to is a limited problem that can be further contained by politicians and law authorities who devote their budgets to intelligence collection rather than putting armored vehicles in American streets.
The true existential threat to America comes not from Islamic terror but from our own inability to think and speak clearly about the threats that we face. By abridging the rights of all Americans in order to avoid politically unpleasant images we are inflicting greater damage on our society than any group of Islamist terrorists could ever dream of doing on their own.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).