By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON—I should knock wood before writing this, but why is it that the United States hasn’t seen attempted terrorist bombings such as the ones that fizzled last Friday and Saturday in Britain?
The investigation of the botched attacks in London and Glasgow is far from complete, and authorities can’t even be certain that this spasm of intended mayhem has ended. With suspects still being rounded up, it’s hard to tell where these plotters fit on the scale that runs from “trained al-Qaida operative” all the way down to “deluded, suicidal wannabe.”
From what we know so far, however, it doesn’t seem that there was anything exotic, or even particularly sophisticated, about the materials used in the two car bombs that failed to explode near Piccadilly Circus. Unless British authorities are holding information back, the not-ready-for-prime-time terrorists packed the cars with propane canisters, gasoline-filled containers and lots of nails to act as shrapnel. Cell phones were supposed to trigger the detonations.
We’re not talking plastic explosives or anything like that. All of the stuff that was used could be amassed over a couple of weeks, without drawing suspicion, with a few trips to Home Depot or Lowe’s, any gas station and a store that sells throwaway cell phones—in other words, several visits to your average suburban strip mall.
When you also consider the obvious incompetence of the terrorists—they couldn’t make either of the London bombs go off, and the two men who drove a car into the Glasgow airport didn’t even succeed in killing themselves, much less anyone else—it begins to appear that these guys were pretty far down near the “wannabe” end of the spectrum. Even if the plotters turn out to have had links to al-Qaida, the plot itself has a distinctly homemade feel.
Why, then, is Britain under siege—and the rest of Europe possibly threatened—while the United States, aka the Great Satan, hasn’t been attacked since Sept. 11, 2001?
It could be that we’ve just been lucky. (Knock wood again.) It’s certainly true that police agencies here have been much more vigilant than before, but that’s the case in Britain as well. It’s also true that U.S. authorities have broken up several terrorist conspiracies, but those plots—such as the plans to ignite a fuel pipeline and blow up John F. Kennedy Airport in New York—were amateurish, technically unsound and thoroughly penetrated by law enforcement before they got anywhere near the operational stage.
I think there are two possible reasons for this long respite from terrorist attacks that the United States has enjoyed. The first is scary: It’s quite possible that al-Qaida has decided not to waste time and assets on small-scale actions here, and instead is determined to make its next assault on the United States even bigger and deadlier than the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
ABCNews.com, quoting an unidentified source, reported Sunday that U.S. officials fear a “spectacular” al-Qaida attack here this summer, but Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff denied that there is any “specific, credible evidence” of any planned attack, spectacular or otherwise. Chertoff has said in the past that preventing another large-scale attack is, necessarily, his agency’s primary focus.
But there’s really no way to prevent a bunch of wannabes from shopping at Home Depot, and that brings me to my second possible reason why the United States isn’t being hit the way Britain is. I think we have far fewer wannabes.
The radical, anti-Western, jihadist ideas that inspire would-be suicide bombers in Britain and elsewhere in Europe have a much harder time finding receptive ears here—even though it’s the United States that many Muslims around the world believe is leading a modern-day crusade against Islam. I know there are Muslims here who are bitterly angry about U.S. foreign policy under George W. Bush but who do not respond by killing themselves and others.
I think that’s because the United States, for all its faults, is still the most inclusive society on Earth. Our nation has a way of making outsiders into participants, a way of convincing people that they are protagonists, not just pawns. The United States can fall short of its promises, but it has a genius for manufacturing possibility. If people have even a glimpse of a better tomorrow, no matter how unbearable today might be, they are less likely to pack a car with explosives and crash into an airport.
There’s hope for us yet. Have a happy Fourth of July.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at symbol)washpost.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group