By Roger Repohl
July 9, 2007
THE BRONX, N.Y. - Ten years ago, the shocking news from Britain was the death of Princess Diana. Last week it was the bungled bombings in London’s theater district and at the Glasgow airport. One of Diana’s last humanitarian causes was the care of children maimed by land mines in the Balkans. She, and we, could hardly have thought that a decade later the focus of destruction would shift to her own land.
She also could hardly have thought that this latest plot would be conceived by people trained to save lives, not take them.
The ironies of terrorism continue to astound. Among those arrested or under investigation are an Iraqi physician; a Jordanian neurologist and his wife, a medical technician; an Indian engineer; and several others scattered around the world, most with backgrounds in medicine. It’s Doctors Without Borders in antimatter, sworn to an inverted oath: "First, do harm."
If it weren’t so perverse, it would be funny that all these people with advanced degrees and technological expertise couldn’t perform a death-dealing operation as well as they could a life-giving one. They thought it was as easy to make a bomb as to make a prosthesis, but their hybris did them in.
The whole episode was tragically comic. The makeshift bombs, comprised of gas canisters and bags of nails, were packed into doctor-cars, two late-model Mercedes; the Glasgow assault vehicle was a Jeep Cherokee. Jihad goes upscale. The London plot was foiled by a couple ambulance drivers who noticed smoke inside one of the cars and notified the police. Allegedly, the two doctors who dropped off the cars in London got in their Cherokee and sped 400 miles north to the Glasgow airport, where they avoided the hassle of security check-in by smashing right into the terminal and setting their car and themselves on fire. The movies couldn’t have done it better.
The bizarre bumbling of The Gang That Couldn’t Bomb Straight was a boon for Scotland Yard. They didn’t have to pick through shrapnel and body parts for evidence; they got everything intact, so that after due investigation the cars could well be given to the British Museum to preserve for posterity a cultural artifact of early twenty-first century barbarism.
Using information right at hand in the unexploded cars (apparently not only the vehicle registrations but the cell-phone detonators complete with phone books and call histories) and data from the London street-surveillance cameras and highway licence-plate tracking devices, the police quickly rounded up the unusual suspects, including the two in the Cherokee who couldn’t even commit suicide right and a man in Australia boarding a one-way flight to India. It was a remarkable example of how well-developed and coordinated British and international law enforcement is becoming.
In the space of a few days, Glasgow Airport was back in service and London streets and bars were once again teeming with night-life. It was reminiscent in a small way of stories about the Blitz, where not even Hitler’s bombers could disrupt Londoners’ composure. No panic, no paranoia. The abnormal is normal now. Terrorism is taken in stride as an unpredictable fact of life, something like confronting a natural disaster.
The United States may be learning from the British. Unlike the hyped-up alerts of various colors over the last five years, Homeland Security czar Chertoff quickly advised that there was "no credible evidence" that a similar act would ripple onto American shores.
The greatest mistake of the Bush administration’s response to the 9/11 disaster was the poisoning of the American mind by creating the myth of a "War on Terror." Terrorists in general, and Al Qaeda in particular, all disparate, self-interested cells, were built into a single monster, "The Enemy" - a phantom world power to be confronted militarily, as if it had a unified leadership, a standing army, and a capital somewhere, like Japan at Pearl Harbor. Swayed by this myth, the people and their representatives tremblingly surrendered most of their common sense and some of their civil liberties, backing one hastily-considered military action and civil apparatus after another, from the invasion of Afghanistan to the Patriot Act to the Office of Homeland Security to the occupation of Iraq. Any timid objections based on fact were countered by the incessant mantra, "If we don’t fight the enemy on his ground, we will have to fight him on ours."
The mantra is still being chanted by the President, even as late as last week, but finally it has lost most of its credibility among Americans, just as the President has lost most of his.
The British have rejected this myth. They treat the terrorist threat as a domestic problem, handled by the police and not the military. They also treat it as inevitable, like earthquakes or hurricanes. They use their best technology to detect warning signs and muster their resources to respond to the worst, but in many instances, no one knows the day nor the hour. There are times when good surveillance and good fortune may uncover a plot before it’s hatched, but the dragnet is always full of holes. It is clear from the London/Glasgow case that conspirators in terror come from all over the planet, live quiet, even professional lives under the radar, and then converge for a moment in time.
Sooner or later, it will be America’s turn again. So long as there lives the hatred that moved the antimatter doctors to turn their noble calling on its head, the potential for destruction remains. With vigilance, preparedness, and luck, the worst may be avoided.