Homeland Security

Words matters: How politicians politicize terror attacks

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It was a clear and hot night Saturday when an improvised explosive device ripped through a dumpster in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan. The explosion and shrapnel injured 29 bystanders. A search of the area near the explosion found another IED just four blocks away. 

The facts of the recent New York City attack began to trickle in.  An IED that exploded on 23rd St., across from the Uptown Broadway local (1 & 9) subway station. Another unexploded device was recovered on 27th St., which houses the next stop on the same Uptown line. The UN general assembly is in session this week, with a large contingent of the world’s leaders coming to New York (to include President Obama). Chelsea is a heavily populated neighborhood favored by residents with alternative lifestyles, and the Pulse nightclub was the last major target of an Islamic State in Iraq & Syria (ISIS)-motivated terrorist.  An IED also exploded the same morning, at a Marine Corps benefit race in Seaside Park, NJ; about an hour from New York City.

{mosads}Putting my specialized training and experience aside, any citizen who has been paying attention to current events could see that this was an act of terrorism.  Within an hour of the initial reports, further information revealed that the unexploded IED recovered from 27th St. was built from a pressure cooker, in the same style as the ones used by the Boston Marathon bombers. In addition to the bombings in New York and New Jersey, there was an attack at a Minnesota mall at 8PM on the same night where an attacker stabbed eight people after asking them if they were Muslims. Responsibility for the Minnesota attack has been claimed by ISIS. Therefore, it was obvious to anyone watching the news that these were terrorist attacks, and that given the tempo of attacks in three different states, some coordination may exist.

However, this wasn’t obvious to New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who conducted a press conference at the scene of the bombing two hours following the initial reports. Within the span of the same sentence, he stated that there was no evidence pointing to this being a terrorist attack, but that the “incident was an intentional act”. Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, Donald Trump got into hot water with the media for mentioning the “bomb that went off in New York City” before DeBlasio’s presser. Now I fully recognize that disclosing certain details of an incident before they are made clear is irresponsible. I also think it’s wrong to jump to conclusions with something as major as terrorism. What is clear, in comparing DeBLasio’s press conferences last night with those conducted during the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations, is that there is a significant softening of language and failure to discuss what happened and what was known at the time of the attack.

Stating it as simply as possible, it is dangerous to politicize a terrorist attack by failing to honestly discuss what is known at the time of the incident, as long as that discussion doesn’t compromise the investigation. DeBlasio’s conspicuous use of language was similar to that used by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney following the January 2016 attempted assassination of Philadelphia Police Officer Jesse Hartnett by a perpetrator claiming allegiances to ISIS. In press conferences at the scene and with law enforcement the next day, Kenney claimed that the attack on Hartnett had “Nothing at all to do with Islam”, in direct contradiction with his Police Commissioner and Homicide Captain’s statements of what the perpetrator himself stated just moments before.

Mayors like DeBlasio and Kenney (who hired a DeBlasio campaign manager to get elected in Philadelphia) often appeal to voters through identity politics, and build progressive coalitions with special interests. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with building a coalition around social reform, it does make it difficult to address the ongoing problems of ISIS radicalization of American citizens, a spike in violent crime, and law enforcement officials being targeted by assailants who identify with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement (in where a two Philadelphia Police Officers were ambushed the night before the September 17th attacks).

This results in statements that follow major incidents in where the leaders of a city, candidates, and others in power are mealy-mouthed. What this does is create a distrust among citizens who’ve put the pieces together themselves and worse, a weak appearance in the eyes of those throughout the world who seek to do us harm.

An incredibly dangerous distinction has been created about terrorism and has dominated the narrative offered by politicians and the television media. This distinction surfaces when details of an attack are not disclosed because “we don’t know if this is an international terrorism or a lone-wolf attack”. While the sponsors, motivation, and possible network of an attack are extremely important factors in the investigation of an attack, it has very little to do with what the citizen needs to know when something like this happens. Civilians need to know if they are safe, if this is or is not an attack, and what they should do to stay out of harm’s way. At the time of the first press conference last night, DeBlasio knew it was a bomb built from what looked like the exact instructions published on Islamist terrorist websites, knew everything I previously listed in this article; but still failed to be frank with the public.

What’s of more critical importance here is that politicians and the media are failing the public by labeling terrorists as “lone wolfs”. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda offer a myriad of online propaganda aimed at recruiting disenfranchised westerners. If someone gets radicalized remotely by a terrorist organization and commits a terrorist attack on their behalf, they are a terrorist. An example of a true “lone wolf” attacker is the “Unabomber” or the “Smiley Face Bomber”, who were alone and acting on their own manifestos. The Boston Marathon bombers, Fort Hood, San Bernadino, Pulse Nightclub, and Jesse Hartnett shooters proclaimed motives or had ties to Islamist groups or ideologies; fitting the definition of international terrorism.

Therefore, what is desperately needed from our politicians is the intellectual honesty to brief the public on possible threats and major incidents in their communities. We cannot effectively address terrorism at home or abroad, whether it is from groups like ISIS or the targeting of law enforcement by BLM sympathizers; if we are afraid to use honest language about the details of what happened. If politicians like DeBlasio and Kenney continue to play politics with major incidents, then the public distrust of elected leaders will continue to grow…resulting in the political rhetoric seen in the Trump vs. Clinton campaign.  Either way, the ongoing threat of terrorism in the United States is far too important an issue to address when the public is left to wonder whether or not their leaders are being straight with them.

Mannes is a national subject matter expert in public safety and regular contributor to The Hill. He serves as a member of the Pierce College Criminal Justice Studies Advisory Board in Philadelphia and is a Governor on the Executive Board of InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public-private partnership for critical infrastructure protection. Follow him on Twitter @PublicSafetySME


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.






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