Politics & Policy

Campaigning in Terror’s Wake

A dumpster mangled by Saturday’s bomb blast in New York City. (Reuters photo: Justin Lane/Pool)
November’s election could hinge on how Americans view this weekend’s attacks.

As of this writing, America is witnessing something close to its luckiest stretch of days in the war on terror. A homegrown radical Islamist set up multiple bombs but didn’t succeed in killing anyone. One bomb, aimed to go off during a marathon, detonated but didn’t hurt anyone because registration problems delayed the start of the race. Another went off in Chelsea, injuring 29 people but somehow managing not to kill anyone. A third was accidentally disarmed by a thief stealing the suitcase in which it was planted. Two homeless men discovered other bombs hidden in a trash can and alerted police. Less than a day later, the primary person of interest was captured alive in a shootout with authorities.

Will the bombs allegedly set by Ahmad Khan Rahami be a major factor in this year’s presidential race? It depends on whether the electorate sees the events of the last 48 hours as sheer luck or a sign that the U.S. government, for all of its flaws, is succeeding in protecting the public.

If you believe that the country is generally safe from terrorism on U.S. soil, then an event like this is not going to change your mind. As former Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano put it after an unsuccessful attempt to blow up an Amsterdam-Detroit airline flight on Christmas Day 2009, “the system worked.” The police this weekend appear to have moved quickly and decisively: They got Rahami’s fingerprint from the unexploded bomb, matched him to surveillance videos, put his picture out to the public, and within two hours, a sharp-eyed police officer spotted him sleeping in the vestibule of a bar in Linden, N.J. Despite the fact that he fled and started “indiscriminately firing his weapon at passing vehicles” after the officer confronted him, he was subdued before anyone got seriously hurt.

But if you believe that the federal government and the Obama administration want to downplay the threat of terrorism, then the last 48 hours feels like a series of dodged bullets likely to invite complacency. It began with a strange verbal denial that what looked, sounded, and felt like terrorism might not meet some vague official definition of the term.

RELATED: The Response to This Weekend’s Terror Attacks Showed Willful Blindess in Real Time

Yes, leaders should avoid rushing to conclusions, and yes, the word “terrorism” often leads people to envision al-Qaeda leaders hiding in caves or threatening ISIS videos. But Saturday night, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio stood before the city and the world and tried to insist that the “intentional act” didn’t really count as “terrorism.”

“Because we have no credible and specific threat, because there is nothing specifically linking what we’ve seen so far of this site to anything that suggests terrorism,” de Blasio said. “We just want to assure new Yorkers — based on what we know at this moment — we do not see a link to terrorism.” 

A key question for the next 50 days will be which approach makes Americans feel less safe.

Indeed, the bomber could have had any motivation. But New York City had been targeted by Islamists in the past and will probably be targeted by them again in the future. Some will see de Blasio’s early comments as prudent caution; others will see them as willful denial, an effort to reassure the public with bland euphemisms.

By Sunday morning, New York governor Andrew Cuomo — no fan of de Blasio — spoke to the media and pointed out the obvious: “A bomb exploding in New York is obviously an act of terrorism. But it’s not linked to international terrorism. In other words, we find no ISIS connection.” By Monday morning, Ahmad Khan Rahami’s anti-American agenda appeared pretty clear, whether or not he ever met anyone from ISIS, al-Qaeda, or other Islamist groups.

Meanwhile, halfway across the country in a Minnesota shopping center, knife-wielding Somali immigrant Dahir Adan had injured nine people, reportedly asking at least one victim if he was Muslim.

Betsy Hodges, the mayor of Minneapolis, offered a Facebook statement that began with the appropriate prayers for the victims and families, but she then warned against the not-yet-arriving backlash, and included a not-so-veiled slam at Trump:

At this difficult moment, I also urge every Minneapolitan and every Minnesotan to support and stand firmly with our Muslim, East African, and Somali friends and neighbors. A horrible, violent attack like this should never be exploited to attack a whole community and a whole religion. Yet we have seen Islamophobia rear its ugly head in terrible moments like this far too many times — and at a moment when one person in particular is playing to fear and hatred of immigrants on a national scale, I fully understand the worry of the Somali community here that it will happen again.

Every time there’s a terrorist attack, America’s elected officials warn the citizenry about the imminent danger of a backlash against innocent Muslim-American citizens. Thankfully, that backlash rarely materializes and very few American mosques face angry mobs carrying torches — although it would be false to say such attacks never occur.

RELATED: It’s Time We Faced the Facts about the Muslim World

How many Americans hear this warning, implying that the public is some sort of unthinking, rage-filled mob, eager to assault the first headscarf or taquiyah hat it sees, and mutter: “Forget the backlash, how about the lash? Forget the theoretical attack that could come against that group, what about the attack that actually occurred, that could have killed any of us?”

No decent human being would ever respond to terror by assaulting the nice Muslim family down the street. But the never-quite-manifest backlashing feels like it should be a secondary concern to the fact that Islamists are still out there, trying to kill innocent people.

#related#Monday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest declared, “In some ways, this is just a war of narratives.” He wasn’t wrong: The war against Islamist terror groups does have an element of competing narratives and messages. But it’s also a fight of bombs, pressure cookers, guns, knives, and blood. No narrative sent shrapnel flying through the streets of Manhattan Saturday night; that was Mr. Rahami’s doing.

Whether she likes it or not, Hillary Clinton is the candidate of the status quo, of non-terroristic intentional acts, backlash warnings, and narrative wars. Donald Trump is the candidate of knee-jerk reactions that sometimes happen to be right. A key question for the next 50 days will be which approach makes Americans feel less safe.

— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.

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