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America Still Hasn’t Learned How to Combat Domestic Terrorism

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Militants inside the Rotunda of the US Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021.
Militants inside the Rotunda of the US Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

I

grew up thinking about terrorism a lot. Because I was born in the U.K. in 1978, much of my childhood was spent watching news footage of the IRA blowing things up. Cars, pubs, army barracks, hotels, gas stations, train stations, department stores, museums, entire town centers. They even came close to blowing up the Prime Minister a couple of times.

This all seemed fairly normal, if I’m honest. This was especially true in my formative years, when I could see Britain’s closest neighbors dealing with similar issues. Spain was battling the armed Basque separatist organization ETA, and France was terrorized throughout the 1970s and ’80s by bombs planted by too many organizations to list here.

Then, when I was 20, one of my favorite pubs in London was blown up by a nail bomb. It wasn’t planted by the IRA though. It came from a scrawny, 22-year-old neo-Nazi who had already bombed London twice that month. The first two devices targeted London’s Black and Indian communities in Brixton and Brick Lane, respectively. The Admiral Duncan was chosen because it was a gay pub. In total, his nail bombs, all hidden innocuously inside sports bags, killed three people and injured 210 others.

By that time, because of the IRA, British people already had a solid understanding of common sense approaches to terrorism prevention. Finding out that Admiral Duncan customers had noticed, then shrugged off, the unattended bag before it exploded stayed with a lot of us long after the fact.

The London bombings of ’99 permanently altered how I—and a lot of other Brits—moved through public spaces. But becoming hyper-aware of my surroundings wasn’t a difficult commitment to make. It always felt more like a form of fighting back than victimhood. In London, terror prevention was, and is, a community effort.

I haven’t felt that sense of empowerment since I moved to America.

Londoners, gathered outside the Admiral Duncan pub as part of a vigil for the victims of the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Florida, June 2016.
Londoners gathered outside the Admiral Duncan pub as part of a vigil for the victims of the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Florida, June 2016. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

I

first moved to the U.S. in February of 2002, when the country was still reeling from 9/11. I assumed much of the nation would be on high alert, in the same way England had been for years. Instead, during my first weeks here, I heard a lot of Islamophobic comments and reports of hate crimes. People openly worried that jets would next be flown into the Hollywood sign, or the Golden Gate Bridge. I quickly realized much of America couldn’t picture anything but 9/11-type events. (I vividly remember asking a friend, “Do Americans think terrorism only happens on planes?”)

It didn’t make any sense. America was already well acquainted with terrorism. 1995’s Oklahoma City bombing killed 149 adults and 19 children, and left hundreds injured. In 1996, the Unabomber was apprehended for killing three people and injuring 23 others with mail bombs. That same year, three pipe bombs hidden in a backpack killed one person and injured 111 others in Atlanta’s Olympic Park bombing. And yet, I couldn’t find any attempts at basic terror prevention—the “just in case” methods that were standard in Britain—in American public spaces.

It’s the little things you notice first.

Trash cans all but disappeared from London streets and train stations in 1991. That was after one person was killed and 38 were injured by an IRA bomb concealed inside a trash can in Victoria Station. In the years since, Londoners have simply become accustomed to carrying waste around with them until they reach their destination. In France, Parisians stay safe by putting their trash in transparent plastic bags held up by metal hoops.

By contrast, New York City thinks nothing of still installing gigantic, opaque trash cans on its subway platforms. This despite a multitude of bomb attacks in the city’s history.

A NYPD officer looks inside a trash can as he guards an entrance to the subway at Times Square in New York on Nov. 19, 2015. Other major cities like Paris and London removed such trash receptacles from public areas years ago as a terror-prevention method. (Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images)

The fact that American airports still have baggage claim areas that are open to the public has been another source of horror for me. Baggage claims should be accessible only to passengers, staff, and bags that have already been subjected to security checks. This is a potential security threat airports in many other countries simply aren’t willing to risk.

And while U.S. airport staff members often move swiftly to vet checked bags and respond to bomb threats, I’ve not had great personal experiences trying to alert some airport staff to unattended bags.

In 2002, I spotted an oddly-shaped package tucked into the corner of an empty bar inside the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. I immediately raised the alarm with the bartender. He glanced up and cheerfully replied, “Oh, I’m sure someone’ll come back for it.” I got a similar reaction when I approached a security guard in O’Hare International Airport in 2004. After I pointed out a partially concealed suitcase that had been unattended for at least 10 minutes, he sarcastically called me a “good citizen” and shooed me back to my security line.

A poster from the New York Subway, instucting passengers: 'If you see something, say something.'
For years, New York Subway posters like this one have been telling passengers to say something if they see something suspicious. But posters like these are largely useless without properly trained MTA staff to report to. (MTA)

Even in American places where signs instruct citizens, “If you see something, say something,” I’ve had no luck finding anyone who actually wants to listen.

In London, if you tell train station employees there’s an unattended bag somewhere, the station immediately closes and robots destroy it using a controlled explosion. Just last week, my sister told me, “No one even takes a chance and looks in the bag anymore. If you don’t already know not to leave your bag, then it’s your own fault.”

When I lived in New York, any time I approached subway station agents about unattended bags on platforms—including major hubs like Times Square and Union Square—I received an eye roll and a “So?” Not even the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing—with its pressure cooker bombs concealed in backpacks—changed the attitudes of the MTA employees I ran to for assistance.

In 2004, I had to complete an afternoon of anti-terror training before I could start a part-time retail job in London. In the ’90s, when my sister got a job in an art gallery, her anti-terrorism training went on for an entire week. Neither one of us—nor any of our coworkers—viewed this as an inconvenience. If you work in a public space, it stands to reason that you should know how to respond to public threats.

In America, the responsibility seems to fall solely on the shoulders of government agencies who have no way of being everywhere at once.

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T

wo weeks ago, federal prosecutors wrote in a court filing that “the intent of the Capitol rioters was to capture and assassinate elected officials in the United States government.” In a related report on the matter, CNN correspondent Jessica Schneider said, “Prosecutors are using the same tools to investigate as they might use in a counter-terrorism probe.” She made it sound as if the attempted coup/bombing was somehow terror-adjacent, rather than actual, real-life terrorism. Domestic terrorism, by definition, is a dangerous, criminal act intended to forcibly change government policy and/or intimidate civilians.

If the events of Jan. 6 don’t constitute terrorism, what does?

A confederate flag-waver inside the US Capitol Rotunda on Jan. 6, 2021.
A confederate flag-waver inside the US Capitol Rotunda on Jan. 6, 2021. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

What we call terrorism—in the government, in the media, and in our communities—matters. Because when terrorists are presented as lone wolves, or a few bad apples, the public is not given a chance to unite against them in any consistent, meaningful or helpful way. Maybe everyday Americans haven’t figured out their contributing roles in the fight against terrorism yet, precisely because of the reluctance to call it what it is.

Every time America deals with an attack by its white, Christian citizens, there is far too much hand-wringing and heel-dragging over using the T-word. We saw it after Charlottesville; we saw it after Charleston. And the Christmas Day Nashville bombing barely even prompted a conversation.

In some ways, that reluctance to recognize these events for what they are is not terribly surprising. The U.S. didn’t even have an official definition for domestic terrorism until 2001’s Patriot Act. Twenty years later, domestic terrorism is still not a federal crime. The issue is complicated; many civil rights groups fear that people of color would be unfairly targeted if a new law was introduced. That concern is especially valid as long as terrorism is solely associated with 9/11, rather than the actions of white, far-right extremists.

In October 2020, the Department of Homeland Security listed “domestic violent extremists” and “white supremacist extremists” as “the most persistent and lethal threat(s)” to America. “Some DVEs and other violent actors,” it reported, “might target events related to the 2020 Presidential campaigns [and] the election.” Despite those warnings, the Capitol woefully lacked security on Jan. 6.

Openly acknowledging broad-scale terrorist threats to the public is not fear-mongering; it’s a chance to become less vulnerable. In other countries, learning how to spot and report potential terror threats has, for decades, been a group activity; one that unites citizens in a collective cause that works to keep everyone safer.

What could possibly be more American than that?

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