Times Square bomber: Cause and effect in the War on Terror

Yet again, an attempted terrorist claims his actions were in response to U.S. violence in the Muslim world

Published October 6, 2010 10:07AM (EDT)

This June 29, 2010 photo taken from video and provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows an FBI-staged explosion in Osceola Mills, Pa., that prosecutors say replicates the power of the car bomb Faisal Shahzad tried to detonate in New York's Times Square on May 1, 2010. Shahzad, who pleaded guilty in June to 10 terrorism and weapons counts, was sentenced Tuesday, Oct. 5 2010 to life in prison. (AP Photo/FBI) (AP)
This June 29, 2010 photo taken from video and provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows an FBI-staged explosion in Osceola Mills, Pa., that prosecutors say replicates the power of the car bomb Faisal Shahzad tried to detonate in New York's Times Square on May 1, 2010. Shahzad, who pleaded guilty in June to 10 terrorism and weapons counts, was sentenced Tuesday, Oct. 5 2010 to life in prison. (AP Photo/FBI) (AP)

Faisal Shahzad was sentenced by a federal judge to life in prison yesterday for his attempted bombing of Times Square, a crime for which he previously pleaded guilty.  Aside from proving yet again how uniquely effective our real judicial system is (as opposed to military commissions or lawless detention) in convicting and punishing Terrorists (see this NYT Editorial on that issue this morning), this episode sheds substantial light on what I wrote about on Monday:  namely, how our actions in the Muslim world -- ostensibly undertaken to combat Terrorism -- do more than anything else to spur Terrorism and ensure its permanent continuation.

Ever since Shahzad was apprehended, the media storyline has been one of faux bafflement:  why would a naturalized Pakistani-American citizen with an M.B.A. and such a nice, middle-class life in the U.S. possibly turn into such a vicious Terrorist Monster?  But from the start, the evidence answering that question has been both clear and overwhelming.  The New York Times examined a decade's worth of emails and other private communications as Shahzad became radicalized against the U.S., in which he railed with increasing fury against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, drone attacks in Pakistan, Israeli violence against Palestinians and Muslims generally, Guantanamo and torture, and asked: "Can you tell me a way to save the oppressed? And a way to fight back when rockets are fired at us and Muslim blood flows?"  When he pleaded guilty in June, this is what he told the baffled and angry Judge about why he did what he did: 

If the United States does not get out of Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries controlled by Muslims, he said, "we will be attacking U.S.," adding that Americans "only care about their people, but they don't care about the people elsewhere in the world when they die" . . . .

As soon as he was taken into custody May 3 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, onboard a flight to Dubai, the Pakistani-born Shahzad told agents that he was motivated by opposition to U.S. policy in the Muslim world, officials said.

"One of the first things he said was, 'How would you feel if people attacked the United States? You are attacking a sovereign Pakistan'," said one law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the interrogation reports are not public.

And then yesterday, at his sentencing, this is what he said when asked if he still wanted to plead guilty:

"Yes," said Shahzad, and then said he wanted to plead guilty and 100 times more," because he wanted the U.S. to know it will continue to suffer attacks if it does not leave Iraq and Afghanistan and stop drone strikes in Pakistan.

Calm, but clearly angry, and standing the whole time . . . . Shahzad said the judge needed to understand his role. "I consider myself a Muslim soldier," he said. When [Judge] Cedarbaum asked whether he considered the people in Times Square to be innocent, he said they had elected the U.S. government.

"Even children?" said Cedarbaum.

"When the drones [in Pakistan] hit, they don't see children," answered Shahzad. He then said, "I am part of the answer to the U.S. killing the Muslim people."

Shahzad is far from unusual.  In fact, virtually every perpetrator of an attempted anti-U.S. Terrorist attack -- beginning with 9/11 and even before -- has cited similar rationale for why they are willing and eager, even at the cost of their own lives, to attack the U.S.:  because the U.S., through its own actions and its enabling of Israel, constantly brings violence, invasions, bombings, occupations, child-killing sanctions, overthrows, foreign control, and widespread death to their part of the world, and has been doing so for many decades.  Obviously, religious fanaticism plays a role in causing people to be willing to give up their own lives, but so constant and consistent is this claimed rationale from Terrorists -- we're doing this in retaliation for U.S. actions in the Muslim world -- that it should no longer be questioned or doubted what principally motivates these attacks.

It's one thing for Americans to argue that we have the right to engage in these actions, that we are justified in doing them, or that we somehow are doing Good Things for Muslims with our bombs and drones even though these primitive ingrates don't realize it.  But it's another thing entirely to act shocked, surprised or confused when our endless (and still-escalating) stream of bombings, invasions, occupations, and other means of control in their part of the world end up provoking a desire to retaliate and return the favor.  It's not just expected that our actions will produce these reactions, but inevitable It's the most basic part of human nature there is.  John Cole put it this way yesterday:

When you bomb people and kill their family, friends, and neighbors, burn down their homes and burn down their businesses and kill their livestock, spewing unexploded ordnance and munitions in fields where they work and their children play, it pisses them off. Many of them even get pissed off enough to fight back against the people they think are responsible for the bombing. They probably even form lifelong grudges when they find their mother and children in thousands of bloody pieces in their former homes.

Again, this is not rocket surgery. If they were not sympathetic to the Taliban and Al Qaeda before, after you bomb the shit out of them, they will be.  

As always, the issue is not justification -- it is inherently unjust to deliberately target civilians with violence -- but causation.  Look at what happened to Americans and what we did in response to a single, one-day attack on 9/11.  Imagine the fury and craving for vengeance and violence that would be unleashed in the U.S. if we were being invaded, occupied, bombed, tortured, disappeared, and indefinitely, lawlessly detained by a foreign Muslim power on U.S. soil for a full decade or more

The very idea that we're going to spend an entire decade dropping a constant stream of bombs and other munitions on and in multiple Muslim countries and otherwise interfere in their governments -- and then expect that nobody will try to attack us back -- evinces such a child-like sense of imperial entitlement that it's hard to put into words.  And yet this is exactly the mindset that pervades our discussions of Terrorism:  why would anyone possibly want to do something as heinous and senseless as placing a bomb in the United States?  I just don't understand it.  What kind of an irrational fanatic and monster would even think of something like that?  Of course, the people who say such things rarely apply the same language to our own political leaders who are engaging in far, far more widespread violence over there and still crave more of it.

This is the cause-and-effect that, in general, is so rarely discussed or acknowledged.  Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan responded to some of the points I raised about Obama's assassination program, and in doing so, again explained why he favors assassinations as part of a global war against "a theocratic military organization of horrifying methods":

[T]here are groups and individuals out there trying to kill as many Westerners, and fellow Muslims, as they can, and to do so with no qualms and with as much damage as possible. This is not a chimera. Attacks have continued every year since 9/11 and before. The perpetrators of 9/11 remain at large. New bases in Yemen and Somalia and Iraq and Pakistan and Afghanistan exist.

I wonder why "attacks have continued every year since 9/11" and why there are "new bases" springing up all over the world?  Might anything we've been doing "since 9/11" -- or before -- have caused that?  Indeed, what this mentality calls for -- an always-escalating global war aimed at Muslims -- is perfectly designed (even if unintentionally) to ensure that Terrorist attacks on the U.S. not only continue but escalate forever.  In an excellent response to Sullivan's defense of assassinations, The New Yorker's Amy Davidson makes clear the breadth and depth of the destruction which this mentality spawns:

Sullivan thinks that there is a sprawling international battlefield in the war on terror on which al-Awlaki can be said to be a soldier. But we are not at war with Yemen -- not yet. Or are we just talking about a metaphorical, or figurative, battlefield? What are this battlefield’s boundaries -- does it have any? If our fight against Al Qaeda is truly global, can the President order an American citizen assassinated without due process in London, or, for that matter, in Brooklyn? 

It's true that we're not legally at war with Yemen, but we most certainly are at war in Yemen, just as we are in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan, and in Iraq, and in Somalia, while we threaten Iran and arm and otherwise enable Israel in its acts of wars over the past several years in Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria.  What do we think and expect the people in that part of the world to do in the face of this always-escalating global aggression and violence?  What would we do -- what did we do -- in the face of it when a mere sliver of it is brought to our soil?  And consider the implications of those who think we must bomb all locations where Terrorists are found in order to "disrupt" their training:  a never-ending expansion of our War on Terror to all new places in the Muslim world.  Does anyone rational believe that this will do anything other than exacerbate the threat which Americans face?

In fact, consider what would likely happen if we did succeed in assassinating the Wikipedia-condemned, Evil Al Qaeda Monster, Anwar Awlaki.  I've devoted little attention to this question because I don't believe the President has the authority to order due-process-free CIA assassinations of American citizens even if good outcomes can be achieved.  But it's hard to imagine a good outcome from this action.

Whatever else Awlaki is, he's a highly popular Islamic cleric to whom huge numbers of Muslims listen.  If the U.S. were to kill him in a drone attack as he sleeps, it would eliminate Awlaki, but it is painfully obvious that: (a) someone would quickly take his place (does Awalki radicalize Muslim youth, or do they listen to him because they're already radicalized?); (b) his anti-American sermons (preserved forever on the Internet) would almost certainly be even more influential and popular if he were "martyred" by the U.S.; and, most important, (c) killing him would inspire large numbers of his devout, youthful adherents to want to attack Americans in retaliation.  Indeed, Awlaki himself was long considered a moderate imam in the U.S., but -- as The New York Times' Scott Shane explained at a recent, superb panel discussion on Awlaki -- he was radicalized by perceived U.S. persecution of Muslims in the wake of 9/11.  Killing Muslims we don't like from the sky can eliminate those specific targets, but -- as even the DOD has recognized since 2004 -- those actions are precisely what spawn more and more Terrorism.  It's certainly true that even a total cessation of U.S. violence in the Muslim world would not eliminate all Terrorists, but our behavior clearly, on balance, spawns more Terrorism and more threats to Americans' security.

Our national foreign policy seems boiled down to this premise:  we must and will continue to bomb, invade and control Muslim countries until they stop wanting to attack and bomb us or, at least, are unable to continue to do so.  Obviously, though, if we continue to engage in that behavior, that day will never come, given that this behavior is precisely what fuels most of it.  Just ask them and they'll be more than happy to explain it, as Faisal Shahzad has spent months attempting to do.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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