Many were confused last Saturday night when, at a press briefing, New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, said the explosion in Chelsea was intentional but that there was no evidence of terrorism.
It was an analysis that left far more questions than answers. It also left many wondering: Were New York’s officials deliberately avoiding calling the explosion a terror act?
Belying the mayor’s words — apart from common sense — was the fact that the NYPD had its counterterrorism unit on the ground and NYPD was reporting a possible secondary device.
By Sunday morning, the whole picture had changed and New York’s officials were longer saying “there was no evidence of terrorism.”
Officials are careful not to brand something as terrorism. The Pollyannaish among us would say that this is to avoid worrying people needlessly and to maintain calm. The more sober among us might say that these officials are unwilling to face the reality of terrorism.
We understand. In the immediacy of a mass act of violence, it is not always easy to surmise what has happened, let alone to determine who the perpetrators were. Caution is a good thing, if applied judiciously, appropriately — but not when it’s used to avoid being truthful, to obfuscate.
The problem, an example of which happened in New York, is that it seems that there’s a desire among officials to say immediately it’s not terrorism. It might be unwise to immediately jump to the conclusion that any given violent act is terrorrism; but it is far more dangerous to jump to the conclusion that it is not.
This tendency — to say what something is not — bears out in de Blasio’s statements last Saturday night that the Chelsea explosion was unrelated to a pipe bomb earlier that day in New Jersey (it later turned out they were connected).
New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was an official quick to call the act terrorism, also had a strange branding of what the explosion was not. “It’s not linked to international terrorism,” he said on Sunday, “in that we have not found links to ISIS and etc.” By Monday, Cuomo changed his tune, not to mention, an “inspirational” international link is just as direct and just as dangerous as an operational link.
Cuomo’s compartmentalized view of terrorism is a reflection of how the US continues to underestimate and misunderstand terrorism — to our own detriment.
International terrorism can come from anywhere, anytime. There is no one group that has a monopoly. ISIS might be the terrorist enemy of the day; does that mean Al Qaida has disappeared? It’s easy to put things in boxes. But destroying one box does not rid the world of terrorism. It’s incredible that Cuomo hasn’t learned this yet.
If police adopt the approach of caution, we could accept it — if it were applied equally. When the caution is applied only to saying what an attack is not, that’s when people start losing trust that their elected officials can adequately protect them.
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