When We Shelter In Place, Do Terrorists Win?

Last week’s drama in Boston and Cambridge -- the late Thursday shootout  with two terrorism suspects firing automatic weapons and hurling grenade, then the manhunt for the wounded survivor that paralyzed the entire area -- ended in a success for law enforcement and for this gritty town’s resilient defiance.

But as the area struggles to return to some sense of normalcy, I’m personally left with one nagging concern; if the search for a single, elusive terror suspect managed to shut down Boston and these surrounding towns, what lessons might other would-be attackers take away about the ability of a dangerous few to disrupt life for the many?

During Friday’s manhunt, when I along with hundreds of thousands of others was “sheltering in place” following Gov. Deval Patrick’s orders, I recalled one of my many reporting trips to Kabul, Afghanistan, in January 2010, where I was doing temporary duty in The Washington Post Bureau before heading full-time to China.

My monthlong stint in Kabul was supposed to be non-eventful -- just “babysitting” the bureau, as we say in newsroom parlance.  Be on hand in case anything newsworthy happened.  FInd a few feature stories.  Have a few good meals.  Catch up on my reading before heading out to set up shop in Shanghai and Beijing.

Then on Jan. 19, a small band of seven Taliban attackers, hurling grenades, firing automatic weapons and detonating explosive vest, laid siege to Kabul.  Starting around 9:30 A.M., when one attacker detonated his suicide vest at a traffic circle near the presidential palace, one group of three accomplices raced to the top floor of a shopping mall, on a narrow street with a vantage point over the Afghan justice ministry.  And with volleys of shots from automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, the attackers proceeded to shut down the center of the bustling city, paralyzing life for several hours of their siege.

That shootout ended when Afghan commandos slowly made their way into the shopping mall, and the attackers detonated their explosive vests. A separate band of three assailants staged a last stand in a movie theater, before they, too, blew themselves up. In the end, two civilians and five members of the security forces were killed along with the seven Taliban, more than 70 people were wounded, and shops and businesses were heavily damaged by the explosions and automatic weapons fire and RPGs.

I remember thinking at the time that the death toll was remarkably low for an all-day siege.  But the psychological toll seemed far greater; the Taliban had been able to infiltrate the heart of the capital, stage a brazen daylight attack, and disrupt normal life -- shutting businesses and offices, and having people cowering indoors for an entire day.  By nightfall, and indeed the next day, Kabul still had not returned to its previous self -- there were armored vehicles at key intersections, and many shops remained shuttered, amid rumors that further suicide attackers were still on the loose.

Seven determined attackers.  I remember thinking; seven attackers, and an entire city paralyzed.

That January strike in Kabul actually had its antecedent in the 2008 siege of Mumbai, by an armed band of ten Pakistan-based guerrillas who attacked a dozen sites, including a Jewish community center, a cafe, and the Oberoi Trident Hotel, where hundreds of guests and employees were held hostage. That three-day siege left more than 160 people dead, including all but one of the attackers, who was captured and later executed.  Ten people brought India’s largest city to a halt for days.

And I recall another city siege I covered, early in my career as a foreign correspondent, in Manila, in December 1,1989, when rebel soldiers opposed to the democratic government of President Corazon C. Aquino staged a bloody coup attempt.  The coup was put down after a week, thanks to the loyalty of the armed forces top brass and with the help of protective overflights by U.S. F-4 Phantom fighter jets from the nearby American Clark Air Base in Angeles City, which prevented rebel planes from taking off.  But the defeated rebels, loyal to a renegade Colonel Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan, retreated into a series of high-rise hotels and office buildings in Makati, Metropolitan Manila’s affluent commercial heart.  The Makati siege lasted until Dec. 7, paralyzing the Manila’s economic heart.

And who could forget how the 9/11 terror attacks forced the closing of the stock market and the grounding of all planes over U.S airspace for nearly a week?

Last week, shuttered in my apartment near Harvard Square, staring out at the empty streets, I thought about the Manila and Kabul sieges, which I covered firsthand, and also 9/11 and the Mumbai attacks, both of which I watched unfold in real time while glued to my television set.  Was this the new type of terrorism, I wondered?  Can an entire metropolitan area be so easily shut down, just by the threat of one lone killer armed with explosives and automatic weapons?  And if so -- if we are that vulnerable -- then what will deter future copycat assailants who might want to do nothing more than shut down a city, sow chaos and generate fear?

I wouldn’t second guess the decision of the governor or police authorities to issue their “shelter in place” order.  It seemed prudent at the time, considering there was a heavily armed suspect at large, believed to have automatic weapons, explosives, and no compunction about killing and maiming as many innocent people as possible.  On a “normal” day, without the lockdown order, a packed morning subway or crowded coffee shop could have become the killer’s impromptu target.  Better safe than sorry.  We could all miss a Friday’s work, even on a lovely spring day.

But will the next madman with a grudge take what happened in Boston as his cue for how to disrupt normal life in one of our major cities?  Can another lunatic with an explosives vest and a twisted cause once again keep hundreds of thousands of people on lockdown?

The questions are worth asking, as we enter what appears to be our “new normal” in this second decade since the 9/11 terror attacks.  Ours is an open society -- even with all the new post-9/11 restrictions and the now-ubiquitous closed circuit television cameras.

But it’s our very openness and our freedom that makes us vulnerable -- and makes me worry that the next determined attacker on a suicide mission here might have learned the lesson from Manila, Mumbai, Kabul and now, to that list, add Boston.

Thoughts?  The comments section below is open for your views.

 

Comments

This past year and a half has had several shut-in days, or better parts of a day - there was Hurricane Irene, then Hurricane Sandy, then snowstorm Nemo. Sometimes staying inside is more optional than other times. Buy it bears remembering: this wasn't the first time the streets were empty.

I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Thank you. I hesitate to add my uninformed opinion. But mine comes from somebody who spent much of my life in the South. Many of my social media acquaintances are still in the Deep South. It appears from their comments that they all are armed to the teeth and itching to do battle. Having such an attack in Boston is one thing. If it happened in Jackson, MS, you could well have groups if folks out shooting anybody they find scary. They find a lot of people scary. Best to keep them out of the way of professionals, I think.

I think New York might have responded differently than a lockdown. In fact, there are parts of New York the suspect would have been wise to avoid -- I'm sure they wouldn't have waited for the professional law enforcers to arrive. Cheers, Keith

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