Terrorism as Normalcy

By Cockburn, Alexander | The Nation, July 1, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Terrorism as Normalcy


Cockburn, Alexander, The Nation


Gangbangers with dirty bombs! Now we're talking. The big news about the latest suspected terror bomber is not that he now calls himself Al Muhajir but that he was formerly Jose Padilla, a Puerto Rican raised in Chicago. Padilla became a son of militant Islam in the slammer, same way thousands of other young denizens of our gulag do.

In the normal order of business, suspected gangbangers don't have much purchase on the Bill of Rights. Their rights of assembly and protection against unreasonable search and seizure were curtailed long since. Padilla's current status could foreshadow a trend. Pending challenge in the courts, he's classed as an "enemy combatant" and locked up in a Navy brig in Charleston, with no rights at all.

Tuesday, June 11, all the way from Moscow, Attorney General Ashcroft fostered the impression that Padilla/Muhajir had been foiled pretty much in the act of planting radioactive material taped to TNT in the basement of the Sears Tower or some kindred monument of Chicago. "US: 'Dirty Bomb' Plot Foiled," exulted USA Today.

Next day came a modified climb-down. "Threat of 'Dirty Bomb' Softened" muttered USA Today's front-page headline. It turned out Muhajir had ten grand in cash and maybe big dreams but nothing in the way of radioactive dirt or even TNT. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told the press, "I don't think there was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk." He should know.

But at least we're now sensitized to the "dirty bomb" menace. It seems that ten pounds of TNT, wrapped around a "pea-size" piece of cesium-137 from a medical gauge, would give anyone within five blocks downwind a one in a thousand chance of getting cancer. We should be worried about this? I'd say it should come pretty low on the list of Major Concerns. Suppose Al Qaeda were to plan something really nasty, like shipping spent nuclear fuel by rail from every quarter of the United States to a fissured mountain in Nevada not that far from one of America's prime tourist destinations. That's the Bush plan, of course.

What a gift to the forces of darkness the War on Terror is turning out to be, as a subject-changer from the normal terrorism inflicted by the state. Right now, across the United States, the final cutoffs for people on welfare are looming. The guillotine blade ratcheted into position by Clinton's 1996 welfare reform is plummeting.

Take Oregon. It has a terrible recession, the worst unemployment rate in the country and the largest deficit in the state's history. Back in 1979, according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy, 39 percent of poor Oregonians were getting public assistance. These days it's under 10 percent. Does that mean the previously destitute are now in regular jobs? No. It just means you have to be a lot poorer to get any sort of handout. It means the usual story: exhausted mothers scrabbling for petty cash, doing occasional starvation-wage work.

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