Let’s Catch Them Now

    “The Justice Department and the FBI plan to ask for the public’s help today in locating several suspected terrorist sympathizers, including some whose names have not been made public before. The bureau probably plans another public push to find Aafia Siddiqui, 32, a Pakistani woman who has a doctorate in neurological science and has studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University in the Boston area, as well as in Houston. The FBI also could seek help locating a man Siddiqui has been linked to, Adnan G. El Shukrijumah. He is a suspected al Qaeda member who spent time in Florida, and his name has come up in interrogations of captured al Qaeda lieutenant Khalid Sheik Mohammed.”
    —Washington Post, May 26

    “The FBI has apologized to a man it arrested in connection with the Madrid train bombings, hours after he was cleared of any wrongdoing. The Federal Bureau of Investigation detained Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield for two weeks after investigators thought they had matched his fingerprint to one found on a bag of detonators in Madrid. Last week, US officials released the 37 year old Mayfield after Spanish police said the fingerprints belonged to an Algerian man.”
    —Voice of America, May 27

    “In April, an FBI bulletin to law enforcement agencies warned of possible truck bombs. A source familiar with the government’s threat discussions said yesterday that truck bombs are a primary concern. ‘I’m more worried than I was at Christmastime,’ said one senior U.S. intelligence official, comparing the ‘election threat’ to the canceling of specific airline flights around the holidays. He said the U.S. government is convinced there are as yet unidentified al Qaeda operatives residing in the United States, waiting for the word to launch plots.”
    —Washington Post, May 27

    “The so-called ‘War on Terror’ started by U.S. President George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington has led to a ‘new wave’ of human rights abuses, campaign group Amnesty International said.”
    —Bloomberg News, May 26

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It’s kind of crazy out there. So this might be a good time to say: Let’s do our best as a people to catch and imprison terrorists. Let’s get ‘em. Let’s make it our highest national priority. Let’s find those who mean to end the lives of hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of innocent people. Then, once it looks like all or most of the bad guys are captured, let’s turn our national attention to studying how we could have done it better, more gently, more justly, more competently. But first the capture, then the criticism.

It is terrible for Mr. Mayfield that he was mistaken for a Madrid bomber. It’s awful that he was arrested. He’ll probably sue the government and win damages. But whatever he does, he’s still alive, and the U.S. government has cleared him and apologized to him in front of the world. It is better to be alive and free after a false arrest than it is to be dead and maimed and the victim of a terror bomb. When you are dead it doesn’t matter who apologizes. When you’re dead you can sue nobody, though the trial lawyers association will probably change that eventually.

It is too bad Amnesty International is worried about possible U.S. insensitivity in apprehending potential terrorists. No doubt there has been and will be roughness. But mostly Amnesty is talking about this because they don’t really like us, they don’t know what time it is, they have to do something for a living, they think we’re more competent than we are, and they still don’t understand Sept. 11.

They will understand terrorism better after the next attack. But Americans don’t have to wait. We were there. We can cut to the chase. Let’s aggressively, passionately and with no ambivalence pursue bad guys. Let’s give as much respect, assistance and credit to the searchers as we can. And if we have to hold symposiums and commissions to criticize them for overexuberance and unnecessary roughness, let’s do it later, like in 2016, when this is over and our children have been allowed to grow up.

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In New York right now we are planning our Memorial Day weekends. We know we are in a difficult historical time, but we do not dwell on it. We don’t always even think. We free-associate, like this: I should get a new dress for the graduation at the Saks sale. They could blow up the Lincoln Tunnel. Meg would love one of those little Chanel knockoffs from the street vender. If New York is bombed while we’re in Boston, where will we stay? If Boston is bombed while we’re at the graduation, how will we get home? Bring cousin Holly’s number in northern Connecticut. Pick up mascara.

From the dire to the banal. No, not from one to another but both interweaved. Having the jits and planning the party. People are dieting because summer’s coming and wondering if an al Qaeda hit on New York would trigger a food shortage.

My general sense is that New Yorkers don’t really think anything bad is going to happen right now. The government gives a lot of warnings, it’s not as if they’re shocking. And they always issue the warnings in a sort of helpful but not helpful way. They don’t know precisely what to fear but they’re somewhat alarmed; they don’t know what precisely to tell you but they’d like you to share their alarm, so that if something bad happens, they told you. In New York we don’t really expect the Next Big Bad Thing to happen when we’ve been warned it will happen. We expect it to happen when it isn’t expected. We assume that increased levels of chatter means increased levels of surveillance, which means increased levels of safety. Al Qaeda likes to surprise us. They don’t move when we expect. It’s all head-fakes.

This should mean that New Yorkers expect trouble when we are not being told by the government to expect trouble. But that’s not true either. Because when we’re not being warned about trouble, we forget to think about trouble. We’re thinking about the school meeting or the car or the price of steak.

When I go through the Lincoln Tunnel at a relatively quiet time in terms of government warnings I think, “Nothing will probably happen today, it’s quiet.” When I go through the Lincoln Tunnel at a terror alert time I think, “Nothing will probably happen today, there’s security all over and the terror-cell guys in Jersey City are probably playing cards.”

Then I emerge from the tunnel and realize I’ve been thinking about nothing but terrorism.

It is a weird time in American history. Someday someone will capture it, in a great novel. Maybe in 2016, when we’ve caught all the terrorists, and we’re at our children’s and grandchildren’s graduations.