The story of the Times Square bomber reads like some Urdu dinner-theater production of Mel Brooks’s The Producers that got lost in translation between here and Peshawar: A man sets out to produce the biggest bomb on Broadway since Dance a Little Closer closed on its opening night in 1983. Everything goes right: He gets a parking space right next to Viacom, owners of the hated Comedy Central! But then he gets careless: He buys the wrong fertilizer. He fails to open the valve on the propane tank. And next thing you know, his ingenious plot is the non-stop laugh riot of the Great White Way. Ha-ha! What a loser! Why, the whole thing’s totally — what’s the word? — “amateurish,” according to multiple officials. It “looked amateurish,” scoffed New York’s Mayor Bloomberg. “Amateurish,” agreed Janet Napolitano, the White House amateurishness czar.
Ha-ha-ha! How many jihadists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Twenty-seven. Twenty-six terrorist masterminds to supervise six months of rigorous training at a camp in Waziristan, after which the 27th flies back to Newark, goes to Home Depot, and buys a quart of lamp oil and a wick.
Is it so unreasonable to foresee that one day one of these guys will buy the wrong lamp oil and a defective wick and drop the Camp Osama book of matches in a puddle as he’s trying to light the bomb, and yet, this time, amazingly, it actually goes off? Not really. Last year, not one but two “terrorism task forces” discovered that U.S. Army psychiatrisat Nidal Hasan was in regular e-mail contact with the American-born, Yemeni-based cleric Ayman al-Awlaki but concluded that this was consistent with the major’s “research interests,” so there was nothing to worry about. A few months later, Major Hasan gunned down dozens of his comrades while standing on a table shouting “Allahu Akbar!” That was also consistent with his “research interests,” by the way. A policy of relying on stupid jihadists to screw it up every time will inevitably allow one or two to wiggle through. Hopefully not on a nuclear scale.
Faisal Shahzad’s curriculum vitae rang a vague bell with me. A couple of years back, I read a bestselling novel by Mohsin Hamid called The Reluctant Fundamentalist. His protagonist, Changez, is not so very different from young Faisal: They’re both young, educated, Westernized Muslims from prominent Pakistani families. Changez went to Princeton; Faisal went to the non-Ivy University of Bridgeport, but he nevertheless emerged with an MBA. Both men graduate to the high-flying sector of Wall Street analysts. On returning to New York from overseas, both men get singled out and questioned by Immigration officials. Both men sour on America, and grow beards. Previously “moderate,” they are now “radicalized.”
The difference is that Faisal tries to blow up midtown Manhattan while Changez becomes the amused, detached narrator of a critically acclaimed novel genially mocking America’s parochialism and paranoia. Mohsin Hamed’s book was hailed as “elegant” (the Observer), “charming” (the Village Voice), “playful” (the Financial Times), “rich in irony” (the Sydney Morning Herald), and “finely tuned to the ironies of mutual — but especially American – prejudice” (the Guardian). If only life were like an elegantly playful novel rich in irony. Instead, the real-life counterpart to the elegant charmer holes up in a jihadist training camp for months, flies back “home,” and parks a fully loaded SUV in Times Square.
He’s not an exception, he’s the rule. The Pantybomber is a wealthy Nigerian who lived in a London flat worth £2 million. Kafeel Ahmed, who died driving a flaming SUV into the concourse of Glasgow Airport, was president of the Islamic Society of Queen’s University, Belfast. Omar Sheikh, the man who beheaded Daniel Pearl, was a graduate of the London School of Economics. Mohammed Atta was a Hamburg University engineering student. Osama bin Laden went to summer school at Oxford. Educated men. Westernized men. Men who could be pulling down big six-figure salaries anywhere on the planet — were it not that their Islamic identity trumps everything else: elite education, high-paying job, Western passport.