Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Smoking Bomb

May 1, 2010, it is crowded in Times Square as usual. Wide eyed tourists all dazzled by the neon, whose glow is claimed to be visible from outer space, strain their necks upwards. At around 6:30 PM an unassuming T-Shirt vendor looks sideways and spots a smoking SUV parked on 45th street and alerts the police. And so begins an all to0 familiar chain of events. The 24/7 madness of the news media is put into motion. Soon live pictures of Times Square engulf TV screens across the nation. A robot is deployed from a distance. It becomes apparent it is a car bomb.

Within hours we find out the bomb is made up of a Nissan Pathfinder, gasoline, propane tanks, firecrackers, simple alarm clocks and eight bags of a granular substance, later determined to be nonexplosive grade of fertilizer, inside a 55-inch-tall metal gun locker. Enough to cause significant damage and put a city on edge which has seen the worst. And so begins a manhunt and media speculation runs amok. The usual suspects are all named. Al Qaeda, Taliban, Right wing militia, Home grown terrorists and everyone else in between. Without a shred of evidence at hand, everyone with two cents to add goes on the record on CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC and FOX. Some say the target was the Viacom building because of a Mohammad joke on their comedy show "South Park" that did not go down well earlier that month. Others are trying to track down a man seen on close circuit TV taking off his shirt close to the bomb site. 53 hours later a man is pulled off an Emirates flight to Dubai. The "Times Square Bomber" is found and Attorney General Eric Holder announces with pride, that the man has confessed to the act.

The Muslim community cringes as the name Faisal Shahzad is announced. They were hoping for a Timothy McVeigh, but no such luck. Pictures of a fresh fair faced young man with a glowing smile are plastered across every TV screen and newspaper and an ominous sketch of a distraught man of Pakistani descent turned terrorist is painted. We find out he is a naturalized citizen, who like many immigrants from the subcontinent came as a student on an F1 visa. We find out about his prominent family roots, broken marriage, his financial distress, his trips to Pakistan, the possibility of the Pakistani Taliban getting to his head and his newly cultivated pencil thin beard. These days any facial hair on brown skin is enough to brand you as a possible suspect. Faisal is read his Miranda rights, much to the displeasure of Senator John McCain and his creed, and is locked away in a maximum security cell in Manhattan. What we learn from here on about Faisal, is through carefully managed official disclosures from the FBI and the Justice Department and weak media reporting based on hear say and interviews of people he supposedly knew here in Connecticut and in his hometown in Pakistan.

The bomb if ignited could have killed with deadly impact. The morbidity and seriousness of this act cannot be discounted. But since Times Square was not in Iraq or Afghanistan, where a failure to ignite would have gone unreported, the outcome had unintended consequences. It became rife material for comedy. From John Stewart, Saturday Night Live to David Letterman were all getting laughs making fun of the alleged bomber, his name, his looks and his failure to succeed. Secretary Hillary Clinton was on "60 Minutes" saying she would come down hard on Pakistan if any links were to be established. Senator Joe Lieberman proposed introducing a bill that would strip residents of their citizenship if any link to terrorists or organizations deemed dangerous by the United States government were to be found, and so on and so forth.

What emerged from mere observation as a lay person who is not swept by printed words or sound bytes, was that Faisal's actions- if indeed he is the man behind the bomb-were that of a distraught man who had lost his bearings and resorted to violence to make a point. A list of such people in recent American history runs long. His motivations could definitely have been influenced by Jihadist rhetoric and other anti-American propaganda which is unusually wide spread outside the continental United States. But whether he was a trained assassin, sent on a mission, seems highly unlikely. A person on a mission in today's world, would have sat in the SUV until it exploded or would have been a little more skilled at putting together an explosive device.

Faisal Shazad joins a long list of men with a Muslim name, who have been detained for either hatching terror plots or coming close to executing one, as in this case. Every time some one is put away by the FBI, politicians come out of the woodwork proclaiming that there is a very present threat of people attacking the United States because they are jealous of "our way of life". Even President Obama did not stop short of expressing this sentiment this time. I guess it resonates with the masses and helps demonize the unknown and the unfamiliar. I always wonder what they mean by "our way of life". The rationale that was given for illegally invading Iraq and Afghanistan was largely because "our way of life" was under threat. Does "our way of life" mean consuming to the point where we endanger the planet, does it mean dominating the planet with economic and military force or does it mean our cherished freedoms. Most often the word "freedom" is evoked in conjunction with this phrase. The terrorists hate our "freedom" and therefore we must protect it, even if it means going to war in far of lands destroying other's freedoms under the guise of bringing freedom and democracy. The people who actually threaten "our way of life" are the very politicians who do the fear mongering and shred the constitution when it is convenient. Under the Bush administration "our way of life" was grossly violated for eight years using the Patriot Act. Innocent people paid with their blood and continue to do so and these home grown suited terrorists are yet to be brought to justice. When Senator John McCain speaks out against Miranda rights and Joe Lieberman attempts to sign into law a bigoted bill and the state of Arizona passes a racist law, that is when "our way of life" is threatened. But that threat is never seen as dangerous by a majority as it is violent only to the powerless.

The Jihadist terrorists who attack the United States do so because they have a bone to pick with the United States government and its checkered history. They see the United States government's double standards to hold on to global power and influence undermining the very democracy it touts. They see the US making deals with dictators and illegitimate undemocratic regimes as it has done recently in the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are keenly aware of the US and its relationship with Israel and how it never comes through in solving the Palestinian stalemate while millions live in sub-human conditions in the newest concentration camp called Gaza. While there is no excuse for the violence terrorists resort to, to make themselves noticed and heard, by the same token as Arundathi Roy says "there is no terrorism like state terrorism". While the extreme Jihadists given a chance would like the whole world governed by Sharia law, I think they are really not attacking us because of the freedoms we enjoy. They are attacking because they envision us to have criminally overstepped our boundaries, and they can find good reasoning and rhetoric to use that argument as a powerful message. A message people are willing to give their lives for. It is a battle of interpretations, of how they see the world, and the way the west wants the world to be.

As Faisal Shahzad gets his day in court, another terrorist with a Muslim name Mohammed Ajmal Kasab is sentenced to death in an Indian court for killing innocent civilians in Bombay in 2008. People in India are lining up to hang him, as if to take part in a noble cause. The cycle of violence continues, as more join the ranks of Jihad, motivated by violence and extreme ideology. The end of this battle is no where near as nations gear up for a response with even more violence. The "eye for an eye" method rages on while innocent people stand exposed in the line of fire. Where and when it will end no one knows.

Lance Orton the unassuming T-Shirt vendor was called on by the President and thanked for spotting the smoking bomb and alerting the police in Times Square. He was proclaimed a hero. To stop this scourge and the cycle of violence the President would also have to call on people who are on the opposite side of the divide, what he would say in that call, only he knows. As he is the peacemaker with the prize. The alternative is not working and will not work. It is what it is.