Facts are still coming out about the New York and New Jersey bombings. But from the information we do have, one thing is clear: the counterterror solutions promoted by Trump and Clinton would not have helped prevent it.
Two bombs exploded in New York City and New Jersey this past Saturday. No one was killed in either incident though 29 people were injured in the New York blast. Additionally, a series of similar explosive devices were found elsewhere in New York and New Jersey, all of which failed to detonate as intended. You can read more on the details of the bombings here.
The lead suspect in the case was taken into custody over the weekend after a shootout with police. The suspect has been identified as Ahmad Khan Rahami, a 28-year-old American citizen who was originally born in Afghanistan. He appears to be the prime suspect in both the New Jersey and New York bombings.
It must be emphasized that facts in this story are rapidly changing. And while the fact that Rahami shot at police suggests he was involved in some kind of criminal behavior, it is not certain that he was responsible for all of the bombings at this early stage. And obviously, even if the evidence against him becomes overwhelming, he should be prosecuted in a fair trial like any other suspected criminal.
Who is the suspect?
Disclaimer aside, the prevailing media narrative surrounding this story is quite confident that Rahami is the perpetrator behind the attacks. And this popular narrative of the weekend’s events is what the presidential candidates are responding to. For this reason, it’s worth understanding more about the lead suspect.
According to CNN, Rahami immigrated to the US from Afghanistan when he was 7 years old in 1995. He became a formal US citizen in 2011.
He had reportedly visited Afghanistan and Pakistan multiple times in recent years. His most recent trip was a one-year stint in Pakistan from April 2013 to March 2014. Rahami was questioned by the US government each time upon his return as a standard procedure. They did not identify any warning signs of radicalization.
Rahami married a Pakistani woman in 2011, depending on the source. In 2014, he attempted to petition for her to join him in the US, but ran into various bureaucratic obstacles in the immigration process. It’s not clear whether his petition for his wife was ever ultimately successful.
Rahami’s family owns a restaurant in New Jersey, near where some of the bombs were found. The restaurant had filed a lawsuit against local officials alleging that they were being discriminated against because they were Muslim. The lawsuit was decided in favor of the city.
Donald Trump’s remarks on the attacks centered around two core themes:
- The need for "extreme vetting" and more strict immigration controls
- The need for harsher punishments and less due process for terrorism suspects, which he referred to as "foreign enemy combatants"
The demand for tighter immigration security has been a staple of the Donald Trump campaign. In this case, however, it is not relevant to the problem at hand.
As noted above, Rahami immigrated to the United States when he was 7 years old, and he became an actual US citizen prior to his most suspicious trip to Pakistan. Moreover, in spite of his US citizenship, Rahami was questioned by US officials when he returned from his trips abroad. Presumably, that is precisely what a tight immigration security procedure would entail.
For stricter immigration procedures to offer a solution to the present attacks, Trump’s plan would have to involve one of the following:
- Banning children as young as 7 as potential terrorists, provided they meet other criteria for exclusion (nationality, religion, etc.)
- Preventing US citizens from returning to the US if they travel to places that are off-limits
The first point seems obviously absurd, even for Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Trump has already said previously that US citizens would not be prevented from returning to the US–even if they had the audacity to believe in one of the world’s most prevalent religions.
Likewise, Trump’s call for harsher, more efficient punishments for the suspect might satisfy some kind of thirst for vengeance. But it is highly unlikely they will have any beneficial impact on reducing terrorism.
After all, the threat of harsh punishment is presumably meant to be a deterrent for someone who is considering committing a crime. But for the deterrent to work, the potential criminal must be thinking rationally and must have a healthy concern for self-preservation. Based on the facts we know currently, it doesn’t appear Rahami would meet either standard.
Politicians and government personnel excepted, a rational person doesn’t commit massive acts of violence against random individuals. Yet, in the case of the New York bombing, that’s what the suspect stands accused of. Likewise, a person concerned about protecting his own life, doesn’t participate in a gun battle with police.
Given these facts, there’s no plausible way in which harsher punishments would reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks like these. And this is obvious based solely on the information that has been widely reported by the mainstream media.
Clinton’s response to the attacks uses less inflammatory language, but the content of the proposals is equally objectionable. Her pitch contained three key components:
- She stressed her experience, invoking President Obama and the Orwellian term "direct kinetic action" – suggesting her intent to continue many Obama Administration policies
- She wants "tough vetting" just like Trump does
- She wants to ramp up intelligence gathering with the help of Silicon Valley companies
It would make sense for Clinton to highlight her experience combating terrorism if the 15-year War on Terror was going well. But what honest observer could possibly believe that? It’s true that the Middle East was in chaos in 2008, when President Obama was elected (and incidentally, that chaos stemmed significantly from the Iraq War that Clinton supported). But 2008 looks almost peaceful compared to the situation that confronts the candidates in 2016. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia were in chaos in 2008. Now Syria, Libya, and Yemen can be added to that list. That is not progress.
On immigration, Clinton has effectively adopted a similar policy to Trump. She will discuss refugees less and de-emphasize Islam, both of which are commendable, but the resulting restrictions implied are certainly in the same ballpark as Trump’s vague proposals.
Finally, perhaps the most terrifying part of Clinton’s program is her emphasis on working with Silicon Valley to detect radicalization online. Like Trump’s immigration ideas, this notion makes little sense in the context of the present case.
As The New York Times reports, Rahami did not keep much of a social media presence. Officials described him as a "ghost". Additionally, current indications are that no government agency suspected Rahami of being a terror threat, though he had been arrested previously on other grounds.
Thus, the best case scenario for Clinton’s remarks is that she’s simply ignorant of the case at hand. If Rahami did not have a much of an online presence, then paying Silicon Valley companies (donors?) to help parse and analyze that presence would be of little use.
Perhaps Clinton is really calling for Silicon Valley partnerships to sweep up and analyze even more communications of everyone. This is the more nefarious possible interpretation of her plan. Again, if it were designed to address this specific case, it would mean collecting the communications of all US citizens and having corporate tech partners sift through it for signs of radicalization.
This would be another major blow for civil liberties, and it’s not even clear that it would help prevent terrorist attacks anyway. After all, the National Security Agency already does this to some extent and has thwarted zero terrorist attacks with its powers. Why would next time be different?
In the wake of the recent bombings in New York and New Jersey, Americans will be looking for a presidential candidate that offers credible solutions to terrorism. Trump and Clinton do not meet that standard.
Instead, their proposals are almost completely irrelevant to the case at hand and mere reiterations of ideas they’ve already long since decided on. The fundamental assumptions of the 15-year War on Terror go unchallenged.
Under either candidate’s plans, government power will expand and civil liberties will retreat ever further, but the risk of terrorism and blowback will remain.
Eric Schuler is the author of The Daily Face Palm, which focuses mostly on foreign policy and bad economics.