Three lessons from the Times Square bomb.

Military analysis.
May 3 2010 5:04 PM

Cheney's Wrong, Jacobs Was Right, and Cameras Do Work

Three lessons from the Times Square bomb.

Times Square. Click image to expand.
Police in Times Square

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.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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. *