The hate-crazed misanthrope who planted do-it-yourself bombs in Manhattan and New Jersey over the weekend has already failed in his primary mission. The damage he did was mercifully limited.
More than two dozen people were injured when a pressure-cooker bomb exploded beneath a garbage bin in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, but no one was killed or permanently maimed. Police, who conducted a rapid and efficient sweep of the area, located a second bomb a few blocks away. A pipe bomb exploded Saturday in nearby Seaside Park, N.J., but no one was injured.
The suspect in the bombings was arrested Monday following a shooting in which two police officers suffered minor injuries. Thankfully, he didn’t get the high body count he craved.
It’s hard to predict the wider fallout, though. Fear brings out the worst in people, and fear is the more lasting damage that these awful incidents create: the disorienting sense that no place is safe, that there could be terrorists around every corner, mass killers behind every shrub.
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Statistically speaking, we’re relatively safe from random violence, but there’s enough public mayhem out there to keep those who feel vulnerable steeped in dread.
That’s what the suspect — identified as a naturalized U.S. citizen of Afghan descent — probably will manage to achieve. More dread, more fury, more rage directed at blameless immigrants, Muslims and refugees.
More fear. More people determined to carry guns everywhere they go; more elaborate security apparatus created to keep the guns out.
These are understandable human responses to a threat that, by definition, cannot be predicted, the desire of lunatics to sow mayhem and grief.
What if we could just decide to stop being afraid? Or maybe even to be a little less afraid, to stop trying to imagine every possible doomsday scenario that deranged brains might devise?
Obviously, there are sensible security measures we can take, that we expect the government to provide. But as long as every new headline and act of idiot violence creates a fresh round of panic, all we’re going to get is a domestic arms race that can never be won.
A professional tour guide in Washington, D.C., wrote a thoughtful essay that appeared in Monday’s Washington Post, decrying the ever-increasing effort to “harden” potential targets in the nation’s capital.
“Every year brings a new closure, a new checkpoint, a little less freedom than the year before,” guide and author Tim Kress wrote. Too often, a day intended as a visit to some of our national treasures, he says, becomes a miserable series of long security lines, searches, X-rays and metal detectors.
Yet, as the weekend explosion showed, it is impossible to keep guns and bombs out of public places. Security screenings don’t prevent attacks — they just make them happen somewhere else.
I am not saying — please don’t make me use all caps — not saying that we should abandon security screening, or that private citizens should not have access to firearms. But I just don’t believe that a panicky more-is-better response to every scary headline does us any good.
The fact is that no weapon, no system, no strip-and-frisk-’em protocol can guarantee seamless security in an ostensibly free society. At some point, we have to decide how frightened we’re going to be, how safe we need to feel.
That’s a subjective standard. Do we want to put passengers through metal detectors to board a city bus? Police checkpoints at state lines? Do we want every adult American to feel the need to be armed everywhere they go?
How does any of that prevent a determined lunatic from shooting up a nightclub or planting a bomb on a public street?
A comment posted to a New York Times story about the bombing caught my eye. It was written by a Manhattan resident whose terrified out-of-town aunt was sending panic-stricken texts about the incident.
“It is a bit strange that a resident of Ohio is more fearful of what is going on than someone who lives close by,” the commenter said. “Courage no longer seems to be much of an American virtue. We don’t even aim for it.”
That’s a sad observation, and one I hope isn’t true.
Yes, we need reasonable security. And yes, terrible people plan and carry out dreadful atrocities.
How scared should we be? That’s up to us.
Jacquielynn Floyd is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.