The Newspaper of the Mysteries

The Times Online says that an FBI team trailing Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the Times Square car bombing, lost contact with the subject for hours before “he drove to John F. Kennedy airport and boarded a plane to Dubai”.


The intelligence team did not know Faisal Shahzad, an American of Pakistani descent, was planning to fly abroad until a final passenger list was sent to officials at the Customs and Border Protection agency minutes before the Emirates flight EK202 was due to take off, according to the New York Times.

Compounding the FBI team’s error, ground staff at Emirates did not act act on an electronic message sent to all airlines at midday on Monday – more than eight hours before Mr Shahzad boarded his plane – notifying them that his name had been added to the no-fly list, officials said.

The Times Square bomb may not have killed anybody but it has murdered the English language, because the Attorney General concluded it meant just the opposite. “I was never in any fear that we were in danger of losing him” Attorney General Eric Holder said during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington.  The airplane bearing Shahzad was already on the runway about to take off for Dubai before it was called back.
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Similar confusion surrounds the question of whether Shahzad was part of a conspiracy. On the day after the attack Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano expressed the belief the attack as a “one off”. After being criticized for jumping to conclusions, spokesmen argued that Napolitano was technically correct in her words. “She wasn’t making a judgment about the suspected bomber’s associations with other terrorists or groups, according to a DHS official. If she was, she would have called him a ‘lone wolf'”. Only ignorant Tea Baggers would confuse “lone wolf” with “one off”.  Charles Lane at the Washington Post’s Post Partisan blog explains, somewhat tongue in cheek, the nuances of the English language for those who don’t completely understand it.


Napolitano would indeed look bad if she were prematurely implying that we were dealing with a lone nut rather than a wider conspiracy, as now appears highly possible. But that judgment has to await the answer to another question, specifically: What the heck is a “one-off,” anyway? I vaguely recall this is a British expression meaning “one of a kind,” or something like that. The American equivalent might be “one-shot deal.” If so, then perhaps Napolitano simply intended to suggest that the Times Square bomb was a single attack as opposed to just one of several coordinated attacks.

Toodle-pip and righty-o, old bean.

Chuck Schumer’s assessment that “the odds are quite high that this was a lone wolf” can also be technically correct because while wolves travel in packs a wolf is sometimes alone. Shahzad may have brushed his teeth alone, or put his shoes on alone, so it is not completely incorrect to describe him as a “lone wolf”.  The suspect himself seemed alive to nuances of the English language because he freely admitted that while “he was recently taught how to make bombs on a visit to the Taliban-controlled area of Waziristan … he claimed to have acted alone.”

The President said that “New Yorkers have reminded us once again of how to live with our heads held high.” But according to academics writing in the Washington Post,  that might simply mean that people have to hold their heads high to be on the lookout for roadside bombs. The Times Square bombing, they say, confirms a trend toward smaller attacks. Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson predict that it’s likely there’s an IED in your future.


Old techniques such as car and bus bombs, though not as massively lethal as the new ones — such as turning a hijacked airplane into a guided missile, or detonating a “dirty bomb” or even a small atomic device — would signify mainly that jihadists are starting to consider more frequent terrorist attacks that are far easier to execute and get away with. … A sustained urban terrorism campaign could disrupt American society as profoundly as the Sept. 11 attacks — if not more so.

In the aftermath of the Times Square  attack President Obama warned against the threat from “they”. “Around the world and here at home there are those who would attack our citizens and who would slaughter innocent men, women and children in pursuit of their murderous agenda … They will stop at nothing to kill and disrupt our way of life.”

We know that the aim of those who try to carry out those attacks is to force us to live in fear and thereby amplifying the effects of their attacks, even those that fail … But as Americans, and as a nation, we will not be terrorized … We will not cower in fear. We will not be intimidated.

That may confuse some readers because Faisal Shahzad, according to the Globe and Mail, was “an ordinary American”, no different from anyone who might live down the street. Logically, he must be part of the “we” and not party of the “they”.


He liked to jog, worked as a financial analyst, and was raising two young daughters in a working-class neighbourhood a train ride away from New York City. … According to the Wall Street Journal, he worked for three years at Affinion Group, an international marketing firm, where he was a junior financial analyst.

Last summer, things began to change. The family left their house in Shelton. In September, the bank began foreclosure proceedings. … His father is a retired air vice-marshal in the Pakistani military who lives in an upscale suburb of Peshawar, a city on the edge of the militant-infested tribal area, said security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Kifyat Ali, a relative of Mr. Shahzad’s, told media gathered in Peshawar that he visited his family there whenever he was in the country. “We are shocked,” said Mr. Ali. “He had no connection with any political party or jihadi group.”

Given this language an historian from the future, seeking to reconstruct the great upheavals of the 21st century might reasonably conclude that the evil “they” the President refers to are the heartless managers who foreclosed the mortgage on this ordinary American, and that somehow this Faisal Shahzad was driven to an irrational deed by an intense pang of loneliness or perhaps alienation. A minority interpretation among future historians would probably argue that “they” refers to some other entity because the whole narrative is written in code. But the proposition that newspapers were written in code is so preposterous that only a few crackbrains will believe it.  The entire saga of the catastrophe of the early 21st century will probably remain an unsolved mystery to those who pick over the ruins of a mysteriously vanished civilization.


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