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Jewish World Review
Feb. 5, 2007
/ 17 Shevat 5767
The message in the Boston bomb scare
Suppose for a moment that the harmless Lite-Brites that threw Boston into such
pandemonium last week hadn't been so harmless after all. Suppose that the 38
illuminated devices attached to highway overpasses and other public spots
around the city hadn't been "guerrilla art" intended to promote an animated
show on cable TV, but the terrorist bombs that authorities at first feared they
were. Suppose the individuals behind this operation in Boston and nine other
cities had been devotees not of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, an inane cartoon about
talking fast food, but of Al Qaeda and its violent, totalitarian version of
Suppose the worst had very nearly come to pass, and had been averted only by
the grace of G-d and the nick-of-time intervention of the police department
bomb squads. What would we be doing now? Patting ourselves on the back for
winning a round in the war against terrorism? Hardly. We would be gasping at
how close we had just come to suffering a devastating attack.
In the wake of last week's bomb scare, public discussion seemed to divide into
two camps: those who were enraged at the perpetrators of the stunt and the
massive chaos is led to, and those who mocked city officials for overreacting
hysterically to something many younger residents knew at once was a marketing
gimmick. But the police weren't wrong not to take any chances; even before
9/11, thousands of people around the world wound up in early graves because
something that appeared to be innocuous a suitcase, a toy, a man's bulky
coat, a yellow Ryder rental truck had turned out to be a terrorist's bomb.
Still: If public safety depends on a timely and effective police response to
the appearance of every suspicious object, the public had better not count on
being very safe. Spotting a bomb in time to defuse it is the *last* line of
defense against a terrorist attack the one we're left with when everything
else has failed, or when nothing else has been done.
Sharp-eyed passersby calling 911 will never be numerous enough to flag every
anomaly that might be hiding a bomb. The most adroit and agile sappers can
never be 100 percent sure that a lethal booby-trap isn't ticking somewhere,
unnoticed. However skilled first responders and security officials are at
reacting to dangerous *things,* it is not the things themselves that pose the
greatest danger to us in the war against militant Islam. It is the people
behind those things, and the radical jihadist ideology that motivates them. We
cannot be secure unless we pre-empt such people before they can act, and
discredit that ideology before it poisons new minds.
Vast resources were marshaled in Boston last week to address what turned out to
be a nonexistent threat. "At the peak of the alert," Reuters noted,
"authorities mobilized emergency crews, federal agents, bomb squads, hundreds
of police and the US Coast Guard. . . . Roads, bridges, and even part of the
Charles River were closed." A stunning amount of manpower, time, and money was
thrown at the mere possibility of a "danger" that no one had even known about a
day before. But what about the dangers that we know are only too real? How much
energy and expense do local authorities devote to monitoring the circles in
which radical Islamists indoctrinate and recruit their followers? Are state and
local government pulling out all the stops to expose and counter the jihadist
message that we know can transform peaceful Muslims into implacable Islamists?
It is too easy to focus government attention on specific objects shoes and
liquids at the airport, knives and metal objects at the entrance to public
buildings, mysterious Lite-Brites on the undersides of bridges. It is tougher
to keep a sustained focus on human beings who share certain beliefs, a form of
surveillance from which most Americans instinctively recoil. Ideological and
religious profiling goes against our civil-liberties grain. Infiltrating
Islamic groups, keeping tabs on mosques, applying heightened scrutiny to
Muslims in order to track the extremists among them we tend to find such
activities distasteful, awkward, even un-American.
But if we intend to win the war the jihadists have declared against us, they
are unavoidable. The chaos in Boston last week was absurd and expensive and
truly much ado about nothing. But it was also a warning: Societies at war
cannot wait for bombs to be phoned in to 911. We must stop the Islamists before
they strike. That in turn means knowing who they are, what they say, and where
they are. Even if we would rather not.
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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