The Times Square Attack and the Effort to Redefine “Terrorism”

Bill Burck and Dana Perino write: “No one yet knows for sure who is responsible for the attempted terrorist attack in Times Square last night. It could be al-Qaeda or some other Islamist terrorist group, or some other group, or an individual acting on his or her own. Initial reports are that it may have been a crude bomb and a relatively amateur attack.” But they warn this should serve as a reminder:

[I]t should remind us that the federal officials who continue to insist that New York City is the best place to try KSM and other 9/11 terrorists are, frankly, out of their minds. Attorney General Eric Holder remains delusional on this front, as he has continued to say that a civilian trial in New York remains on the table, despite the uniform protest of all major New York public officials from the mayor to the police chief to the governor.

It does suggest that those devising the administration’s approach to terrorism do so without consideration of or contact with the real world. It is the stuff of academic theory and law-school textbooks, not of the real world or the potential peril faced by ordinary Americans.

Moreover, the incident and the ensuing coverage have highlighted that there is a new definitional game afoot. The administration, in concert with the mainstream media, has begun to set up a false dichotomy: on the one hand, the perpetrators are amateurs, “lone wolves”; on the other, they are “real” Islamic terrorists. But this is folly. Was Major Hassan an “amateur” because he hadn’t perfected his terror skills in previous attacks? Was he a lone wolf because he merely e-mailed a radical imam and did not receive specific instructions from an al-Qaeda operative? When we are dealing with an enemy that does not observe the rules of war and does not conduct battle operations in uniform or within a defined chain of command, these distinctions make little sense.

What matters is that there are Islamic fundamentalists who seek to wage war on the West. (New York Police Chief Raymond Kelly supplied a moment of clarity when he explained, “A terrorist act doesn’t necessarily have to be conducted by an organization. An individual can do it on their own.”) So the notion that we should all breathe a sigh of relief if a particular jihadist is merely inspired by, but not directly linked to, an al-Qaeda operation seems designed only to inure ourselves to the dangers we face and to transform these incidents into “crimes” rather than acts of war.

As the New York Times noted, “Investigators were reviewing similarities between the incident in Times Square and coordinated attacks in the summer of 2007 at a Glasgow airport and a London neighborhood of nightclubs and theaters. Both attacks involved cars containing propane and gasoline that did not explode. Those attacks, the authorities believed, had their roots in Iraq.” We will learn more as the investigation proceeds about whether this was, in fact, a jihadist-motivated attack. But we should not fall into the trap of imagining that the number or organization structure of the attackers is what defines “terrorism.” That’s a recipe for ignoring the danger posed by stunts like affording KSM a public trial — where more “lone wolves” will hear the call to wage war on America.