A Senate report into the murderous 2009 shooting spree at Fort Hood released Thursday traces a familiar and depressing pattern: once again, as was the case in the months leading up to 9/11, dots telegraphing terror yet to come were ignored, overlooked, or slighted by federal personnel paid to detect and connect them.
The report found that both the Defense Department and the FBI had enough information to believe that Army Maj. Nidal Hasan had become a radical and potentially violent Islamic extremist. But both failed to recognize and take action based on that knowledge. “Our report’s painful conclusion is that the Fort Hood massacre could have, and should have, been prevented,” Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., said. The report, by the Senate’s homeland security committee, echoes complaints made by military doctors following the Texas rampage. They said they had complained to commanders about Hasan, but that nothing was done. An Army probe into case refrained from blaming his distorted Islamic views for Hasan’s actions.
But difficult as it may be to do following such a horror, in addition to acknowledging the screw-ups that let the Fort Hood shooting happen, we need to take a step back and see where we are. As Johnny Mercer once said, you’ve got to Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the positive. There has been no major attack on U.S. targets in this country by Muslim fanatics since 9/11. Part of this is due to tighter security at home, and the wars abroad that have preoccupied jihadists since that day. It’s also because creating terror teams willing to die as they kill Americans in pursuit of their twisted beliefs — and with the brains and money to achieve such a grisly goal — is a fairly rare combination.
The math is pretty straightforward. Nearly 3,000 people perished on 9/11. Army psychiatrist Hasan allegedly killed 13 on November 5, 2009, at Fort Hood. Other Islamist terrorists include “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, who tried to down an airplane three months after 9/11, “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to bring down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009, and “Times Square bomber” Faisal Shahzad, who tried to turn his Nissan Pathfinder into a bomb in midtown Manhattan last May.
But even as we call them the “shoe bomber” or the “underwear bomber,” it’s important to remember that, actually, Reid was the “failed shoe bomber” and Abdulmutallab the “failed underwear bomber.” These lone wolves are exceedingly difficult to catch, but it should be reassuring that all failed in their missions. The more succesful the mission — 9/11 and Fort Hood — the more clues were strewn about in plain sight. Serious threats demand serious preparation, which often betrays such plots.
While both the 9/11 plotters and alleged killer Hasan should have been detected and stopped before their attacks, it’s plain the U.S. is deterring or defeating plots we don’t even know about. It makes no difference where in their conception and execution those plots fail; the ultimate deterrence isn’t thwarting a plot at the last minute — or counting on some Keystone Kop buffoon to screw it up — but convincing evildoers it isn’t even worth the effort to try.
To anyone who has lost a loved one on 9/11 or at Fort Hood, it’s no good to note that the U.S. is doing a better job on the terror front. To them, their government let them down completely. But it’s important once in awhile to realize the terrorists’ dream is to detonate a nuclear weapon in a major Western city, in America or elsewhere. So long as that doesn’t happen, and terrorists are forced into crazy schemes involving clothing and cars, we have achieved a significant victory against them.
Things could get even better as the young men who constitute today’s terror cohort grow into boring, middle-aged guys. They were incubated in authoritarian Middle Eastern societies. “America’s tragedy on September 11 was born in the prisons of Egypt,” Lawrence Wright suggests in The Looming Tower. Hosni Mubarak’s government jailed and tortured members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy. Still at large, he’s the reputed “brains” of al Qaeda. “The main target of the prisoners’ wrath was the secular Egyptian government,” Wright wrote, “but a powerful current of anger was also directed toward the West, which they saw as an enabling force behind the repressive regime.”
Perhaps Egypt’s repression made al-Zawahiri and his fellow jihadists look for a softer target, like the U.S. And just perhaps the hatred that Mubarak spawned in al-Zawahiri and others like him, in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, will dissipate as the rulers they loathe shuffle off the world’s stage, one way or another, into history.