Very little is known about Saturday's foiled car-bombing attempt in Times Square. Who drove the van, who planned the attack, what was the motive—are all, for now, mysteries.
Still, a few lessons can be drawn from the sheer facts that it happened and that it failed.
1. Dick Cheney is, once again, wrong. First, the event further discredits the Dick Cheney-Newt Gingrich view of terrorism—that it's "an act of war" and that, therefore, fighting it as if it were a "criminal act" is foolhardy.
We don't yet know whether Saturday night's car bomb was the work of a one-off loner or a terrorist organization. But, in one sense, that's the point: Regardless of who tried to bomb Times Square, the New York City police (and, presumably, much more behind the scenes, U.S. and allied intelligence agencies) would be doing exactly the same thing that they're doing in response—scouring the forensic clues, scrutinizing video footage, questioning witnesses and the usual sources, double-checking electronic intercepts, and all the rest.
Terrorism, in some of its forms, may be a campaign of war—but it manifests itself in criminal acts. And while the military has a role in combating terrorist organizations (see the war in Afghanistan, the drone attacks on al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan, etc.), the acts are often best pre-empted, foiled, and punished by the routine procedures of a well-trained police force and intelligence organizations.
Today's Wall Street Journal recounts nine foiled terrorist attempts in New York since 2002. In almost every case, they were thwarted as a result of arrests and informants.
Similarly, from 2001 to 2008, according to data compiled by George W. Bush's Justice Department, federal prosecutors convicted 319 terrorists—195 of whom were associated with al-Qaida or other jihadist groups—in civilian criminal courts. Only three were convicted by military tribunal, and two of those three were sent back to their native countries and subsequently freed.
2. Jane Jacobs is, once again, right. In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, self-taught urban scholar and activist Jane Jacobs observed that sidewalks and their users are "active participants in the drama of civilization versus barbarism" (by "barbarism," she meant crime) and that a continuously busy sidewalk is a safe sidewalk, because those who have business there—"the natural proprietors of the street"—provide "eyes upon the street."
Jacobs, who died in 2006, would not have been surprised to learn that it was two street vendors who first notified police of the suspicious Nissan Pathfinder parked on West 45th Street just off Broadway.
Lance Orton and Duane Jackson, both disabled Vietnam War veterans who were hailed as heroes after their roles in the foiling became clear, have been keeping their "eyes upon the street" for years and—like many of their fellow vendors—have frequently tipped off police to strange and illegal activities. *
This may explain why busy areas like Times Square aren't attacked by terrorists more often. The crowds make them tempting targets: lots of people mean lots of potential victims and subsequent media attention. But those same crowds—especially the regulars, who are always looking out on the street—make an attack harder to conceal and, therefore, to pull off. (Research project for a sociologist: Have terrorist attacks in Western cities taken place more often, or less often, in areas with lots of street vendors?)
3. Security cameras may be OK. As has widely been reported, the Times Square car bomber may have been captured on surveillance cameras. Someone was videotaped, in any case, walking away from the van and furtively looking around. Someone who just happened to be taking pictures in the area caught what appeared to be this same man, moments later, running up Broadway. If this turns out to be the bomber, and if the pictures help the police identify and find him, the use—and popularity—of public security cameras will certainly get a boost.
A 2006 Harris poll showed two-thirds of Americans favored expanding the use of such cameras, though three-quarters expressed concerns about civil-liberties safeguards. At the time, more than 200 cities in 37 states had installed cameras in public places—not counting those with cameras to monitor traffic violations.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the New York Police Department set up a massive array of cameras in Lower Manhattan—well over 4,000of them—modeled after London's "ring of steel" surveillance network. The city recently received a grant from the Department of Homeland Security to install a similar system in Midtown.
In 2008, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the NYPD, demanding more information about these cameras—how much the system costs, who can examine the footage, how long it's kept, whether it's destroyed. It's worth noting that the suit, which is still pending, calls only for information, not for imposing restrictions on the system or shutting it down. This morning, when I asked about the NYCLU's viewpoint on public surveillance cameras generally, a spokeswoman told me, "It's a complicated issue."
These cameras are probably permanent fixtures in American cities. And city dwellers (as well as tourists) may have come to accept that privacy cannot be presumed when they're out on public streets.
Correction, May 4, 2010: This story originally misspelled Lance Orton's forename. (Return to the corrected sentence.)