Murder on 4 July
After months of terrorist warnings, American officials were asking for it.
Yesterday, a 41-year-old Egyptian gunman marred 4 July celebrations by attacking passengers and staff at Los Angeles airport, killing two and injuring four (1). While this is shocking news, it would have been more surprising had there not been an attack.
For months, America has been bracing itself for 4 July. There has been warning after warning about possible attacks. In May, intelligence experts warned that Islamic terrorists were planning an attack against a US nuclear power plant to coincide with 4 July. As recently as 2 July, the US state department said it had ‘credible’ information that terrorists were planning imminent attacks on US targets.
On the day itself, all security services were on high alert. The New York celebrations were dubbed the ‘Fort of July’, as a result of the large police presence and plethora of security measures, including an emergency supply of protection suits for use in case of biological attack (2). At some celebrations, the airforce was on standby or patrolling overhead, and armed police were in visible presence.
This climate of fear breeds its own threat. The more officials talk about the threat of a terrorist attack, the greater the chance that some lone nutcase will take them up on it. By going on about it all the time, they put ideas into people’s heads. Seeing the whole country braced in expectation of attack, individuals so inclined may think that this is their moment. The whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The expectation of terrorism also creates an extra incentive for attacks – it ups the stakes. When a country is in such a state of high alert, any attack is likely to be able to reap mayhem and chaos – as was shown by the overblown reaction to the crash of a small private plane into a crowd in Los Angeles. Given that psychological damage is often one of the main motives of terrorism, 4 July was, tactically speaking, a very good time for a terrorist attack.
Only the gunman himself knew what particular grudge drove him to shoot at passengers in Los Angeles airport. One suggestion was that he was incensed after an upstairs neighbour hung large American and marine corps flags from a balcony above his door (3). Although his motives may have been personal, the climate of fear gave him an extra incentive.
Had he not fired a shot, 4 July would have been marred – not by terrorism itself, but by the spectre of terrorism. By the time 4 July came, polls showed that up to half of Americans thought that there was going to be a terrorist attack (4). And as one description of the Washington 4 July event showed, many ‘celebrations’ were such in name only:
‘Although 500,000 people were expected for the traditional evening display of spectacular fireworks, only a few thousand were on hand when the spectacle began. Chain-link and snow fencing ringed the mall, and police used metal detectors to scan arrivals and check bags and purses. Once inside the perimeter, visitors could expect to be monitored by newly installed security cameras, while plainclothes and uniformed police patrolled the scene.’ (5)
Some Independence Day.
The Department of Fear and Uncertainty, by Mike Wendling
spiked-issue: After 11 September
spiked-conference: After 11 September – Fear and loathing in the West
(1) FBI identifies Los Angeles airport gunman, Guardian, 5 July 2002
(2) Americans shrug off July 4 jitters, Guardian, 4 July 2002
(3) FBI identifies Los Angeles airport gunman, Guardian, 5 July 2002
(4) Polls show most Americans fear July 4 attack, ABC News, 4 July 2002
(5) US shaken by July 4 killings at LA airport, The Globe and Mail, 5 July 2002
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