Op-Ed, 635 words

Times Square Bomber Popped a Bubble

John Feffer

The bubble is bursting.

I’m not talking about the Greek economy, the collapse of which has bankers and finance ministers trembling from Athens to Antarctica. Nor am I talking about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which reminds us once again that our current energy security rests on shaky foundations.

I’m talking about the Times Square bomber. U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad tried, quite ineptly, to blow up an SUV in midtown Manhattan and was apprehended aboard a plane as he attempted to flee the country. Initially tagged as a lone wolf, Shahzad has now been linked to the Pakistani Taliban.

Bubbles are built on illusions. We believed that our high-tech companies and, after that, our houses would continue to rise in value and then…pop! We believed that we could continue offshore oil drilling without environmental consequences and then…pop! And we believed that the drone program in Pakistan, which expanded in 2009 and has killed hundreds of civilians, would not generate any blowback and then…Faisal Shahzad.

Not surprisingly, since we are conducting a virtual war inside their country, 64 percent of Pakistanis view the United States as an enemy.

Yet the Obama administration is still invested in drone attacks. It has signed on to a major expansion of drone activities by continuing to give the CIA permission to go after individuals whose identities the agency doesn’t even possess. Everyone in Pakistan has become a potential target, not just a narrow list of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. You might imagine how such a program could raise some eyebrows, even for Pakistanis who despise the extremists.

Moreover, in an interesting causal turnaround, the Obama administration believes that these drone attacks, rather than precipitating terrorism, have prevented it. “Because of our success in degrading the capabilities of these terrorist groups overseas, preventing them from carrying out these attacks, they now are relegated to trying to do these unsophisticated attacks, showing that they have inept capabilities in training,” the administration’s top counterterrorism advisor John Brennan recently told CNN.

These illusions of omnipotence–how on earth can we “degrade the capabilities” of all groups everywhere at the same time?–blind us to the more important task of addressing the motivations behind the attacks. We’re clearly losing the “hearts and minds” campaign in Pakistan. Drones aren’t the only reason for militancy in the country. There’s the conflict over Kashmir, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fundamentalist elements within the Pakistani government itself. But drones provoke a heat-seeking anger directed specifically at the United States.

This brings us to the other bubble on the verge of bursting: our conviction that the anger is simply “over there.” For years, European governments have faced the challenge of homegrown extremists. Only now is the United States waking up to the reality of this strain of domestic terrorism. Remember that incident at Fort Hood, where Maj. Nidal Hasan is suspected of gunning down 10 fellow soldiers? Or the five youths who left Northern Virginia, allegedly to join a Pakistani militant group? How about Colleen Rose, aka “Jihad Jane,” the American woman who reportedly planned to kill a Swedish cartoonist earlier this year?

Viewed in isolation, the Times Square incident is terrorism in a teacup. It was a poorly planned and poorly executed effort that has garnered mass attention and not a small amount of derision (even the Taliban has disowned the “idiot bomber”). But as our drone war in Pakistan escalates, domestic extremism is likely to follow suit.

You don’t have to be an expert in ordnance disposal to figure out how to defuse this ticking time bomb. The Obama administration could draw down our foreign wars and redirect that $100 billion toward domestic needs, winning hearts and minds at home and abroad. If it doesn’t, a tempest is sure to follow.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. This op-ed is adapted from an essay in FPIF's weekly World Beat newsletter. www.fpif.org