Fox News does the Times Square freak-out

No need to hand the bomber a victory that he didn't earn

Published May 4, 2010 1:05PM (EDT)

A lot of the time, complaints about the politicization of tragedies consist of empty sanctimony. When people say, "Don’t politicize this," they usually just mean, "Don't disagree with me about how to politicize this." Even a natural occurrence like Hurricane Katrina has profoundly political aspects -- as David Simon puts it in his new show "Treme," the disaster was in some sense man-made, even if the storm wasn't. Terrorism, of course, is inherently political: it's violence designed to produce a political outcome. Hence, there's no way not to respond to it politically. The question is just how.

So I don't begrudge the folks over at Fox News their right to ask questions in the wake of the attempted bombing in Times Square. However, I do begrudge the Fox crew the inane questions they've chosen to ask. (Hat tip to Media Matters on this.)

Interviewing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the Fox and Friends hosts tried to elicit a characterization of the incident as terrorism. Napolitano, who called it a "potential terrorist attack" -- perhaps not wanting to taint a future jury -- didn't satisfy their jonesing for the magic word, in its pure, unmodified state. Later on, host Gretchen Carlson said to guest Rudy Giuliani,

We just interviewed though, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, who refuses to say the word terror. Is this a mandate within the Obama administration, not saying the word terror … the reason I ask the question, Mr. Mayor, is because if you have an administration that does not want to say the word terror, then how the heck do you fight terrorism?

Likewise, Fox legal analyst Peter Johnson delivered a melodramatic monologue, asking, "Are we safer now than we were nine years ago, or have officials lost their way … Are we sleeping while the enemy plans? ... Is the Department of Homeland Security protecting you?"

First of all it seems worth noting that the area around the bomb was evacuated, the bomb squad showed up, and no explosion happened. Then, the guy was arrested. So the answer to Carlson's and Johnson's questions would seem to be that, in fact, the government is perfectly capable of protecting us and fighting terrorism. That's at least where the facts seem to point in the Times Square case.

Nor is it in any way obvious what the vocabulary of government officials has to do with anything at all, when there isn't any complaint with their conduct. You know, the stuff they actually did. The fact that some guy tried to set off a badly-designed bomb is in no way evidence of government negligence. "This story sure is a series of close calls," says the National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez. That’s the best you guys can come up with? By that standard, every time officials foil a terrorist attack beyond its initial stages, it's a sign that they’re blowing it and leaving us unprotected. Really, the mind boggles at this logic.

It's just not that hard to do terrible things to innocent people. We see this all the time, and the fact that would-be terrorists so often blow it is mainly a sign of their relative weakness and incompetence. But it's also evidence that anything beyond the planning stages is really going to be, as Lopez puts it, "a close call," and we should count ourselves lucky that there aren't more catastrophic events, rather than grab at whatever argument we can, no matter how implausible, to use as a cudgel against politicians we don't like.

But alas, there's also a nonsensical attempt to use this attack as part of the complaint against trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York. Says Fox's Steve Doocy, "New York is always a target." So does it really make sense "to have the Khalid Shaikh Mohammed trial and the other terrorists done right here at this big target?" Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. echoes him. "This trial should be taken out of New York; it should be announced immediately. What Attorney General Eric Holder is doing is just really fighting here for a left wing ideology." (King is also inexplicably outraged that Holder is exercising independence as attorney general, and calls for the president to subjugate the prosecutorial arm of the government to his will.)

Look, terrorists aren't like gnats attracted to a light. They're not just getting pulled around to various targets depending on how much attractive stuff we pile up there. What conservatives freaking out over this have failed to grasp is that terrorism is strategic. They go after available targets to try to produce political outcomes that will benefit their cause. If New York is, as Doocy says, "always a target," then it's probably not going to make a difference where Mohammed is tried. Rather more to the point, we can't really predict what will motivate any given attack. It's just not that hard for some militant to pick up a gun or strap on a bomb and go. The fact that it doesn't happen that much is not evidence of a terrifying secret plot in the making. What it shows is that as a rule, we're pretty safe, and can't really expect to predict too well the exceptions to that rule. So it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to descend into utter terror every time some nasty character bungles a car bomb and gets busted at the airport.

Some on the right would like to take advantage of this moment to declare race war. (See Mark Steyn at the National Review, claiming that the government is insufficiently suspicious of "guy[s] with a name like Mohammed," and Rev. Franklin Graham declaring, "Muslims are getting a pass.") Panicking and declaring race war seems like exactly the response that terrorism is meant to elicit, so let's perhaps all just chill out. We busted the would-be bomber. Why give him what he wanted now?

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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