For once, Oregon’s national (and potentially international) news story this weekend is not football or the latest domestic nutjob in a long line from the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh to Tonya Harding. Surprisingly, it’s a Muslim terrorism story . . . at least, ostensibly.
Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old boy born in Somalia and until recently a student at Oregon State University (sorry about that Stanford game, boys), was arrested by Portland City Police and the FBI after trying to detonate what he thought was a bomb in a van parked next to the city’s “downtown living room,” Pioneer Courthouse Square, as the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, attended by thousands, was about to begin.
Pioneer Square is five blocks from my apartment, as the crow flies; eight if you walk the blocks properly. I was probably at home at the time. I’ve never gone to the tree lighting ceremony, though I’ve attended dozens of other events at the square over the years, including the Millennium party of New Year’s, 1999-2000.
Frankly, I don’t feel any more or less safe than I did two days ago. So far, I haven’t seen any sign that this kid posed a real threat, despite all the noise the feds and the media are making about his grandiose notions. The New York Times reported that in 2009 Mohamud made e-mail contact with a man believed to be a recruiter for terrorism. The man had returned to the Middle East from the U.S. -- first to Yemen, then to northwest Pakistan --but apparently he did not continue to respond Mohamud’s communications, let alone offer him assistance. The Oregonian reports that the “terrorist recruiter” referred Mohamud to another contact, but that person never responded to the boy’s messages.
Since then, the suspect’s only contacts have been with an undercover FBI agent posing as a terrorist contact. Now, I wouldn’t defend the kid on the basis of entrapment. It’s clear he meant business: he chose the Christmas holiday, he chose the event, and he wanted a bomb that would kill a lot of people. It’s just not clear, thus far, that he would ever have acquired the know-how or wherewithal to go through with his plan without advice and support from somebody. Actual terrorists never offered it; only the FBI did. I’ve pored over the news stories that have come out since, and though it's a little hard to read between the lines this early in the game, so far I haven’t seen anything that says the critical pieces of the puzzle -- the bomb components, real or fake -- were obtained by Mohamud from anyone but U.S. government employees.
Let’s retain a little perspective, folks. You’re still more likely to be killed by a drunk driver this holiday season than an act of terrorism. The authorities should have scotched this loser quietly. But that would have destroyed a golden opportunity to throw a new scare into the American public and justify the billions of dollars we’ve thrown at the Department of Homeland Security the past seven years, as well as other federal enforcement bodies.
They needed this kind of story badly, given the bad press the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had been getting the past few weeks for its new airport screening measures. Never mind that the TSA would have done nothing to stop this kind of threat; simple-minded Americans who still think invading Iraq was a rational response to 9/11 will probably feel better about being groped by their fellow citizens this December.
The problem I see with these noisy stories about “the success of the government’s war on terrorism” is that it mainly provides lessons for future nutjobs on how to avoid making similarly stupid mistakes. Real, committed terrorists are going to succeed now and then, no matter what anyone does; I don’t see that there’s much we can do about them.
If the U.S. government is in fact tracking and catching those types, more power to ’em; but it should go about it quietly, because that’s the way to keep real terrorists and harmless nutjobs off balance. Terrorizing the American public over relatively harmless religious fanatics like Mohamud or screwups like Richard Reid (remember the “tennis-shoe bomber”?) is, in my opinion, counterproductive and unprofessional.