The four-day siege of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, near where I once lived, is a sobering reminder yet again, as if any were needed, of the vulnerability of open societies to a determined band of terrorists bent on doing evil.
And the possibility that some of the attackers in Kenya may have been American and/or British-born — an assertion made by Kenya’s foreign minister, and by witnesses who described the assailants speaking English — should give everyone pause for what that could portend for the U.S. in the future.
I would also offer a depressing link to another unrelated story of violence that captivated Americans’ attention just a week before the bloody attack in Nairobi; we were still reeling from the latest mass shooting in the U.S., this time in Washington, D.C., when an apparently mentally disturbed military contractor was able to walk onto the secure grounds of the Washington Navy Yard and systematically kill a dozen innocent people with a shotgun, before being gunned down himself in a firefight with police responders.
Before the Washington gunman was slain, the Southeast Washington neighborhood around the Navy Yard appeared under siege. The Nationals cancelled their scheduled evening game that night against Atlanta. The Senate went briefly under lockdown. And Washington was on edge with fears, later determined unfounded, that one or two other gunmen may have been on the lose.
What does the Navy Yard shooting by a lone gunman have to do with the Kenyan shopping mall siege by Somali terrorists?
For one, they both point out the vulnerability of America’s public spaces, particularly shopping malls. If a lone, deranged gunman could terrorize the city from the Navy Yard, an enclosed military facility, imagine the havoc a band of a dozen determined and well-armed terrorists could wreck if they decided to storm the Gallery Place mall in downtown Washington. Or Pentagon City mall across the Potomac River. Or the massive Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.
Seizing a shopping mall or hotel had become a favored tactic of Taliban militants in the Afghan capital, Kabul. In January, 2010, I was reporting for The Washington Post from Kabul when a small squad of Taliban terrorists stormed into a shopping mall, hurling grenades, detonating explosives and firing automatic weapons. They proceeded to engage the Afghan security forces for most of a day, paralyzing the capital city and spreading fear.
I was also in Cambridge, Mass, during last May’s marathon bombing, and I saw how the hunt for the one remaining terror suspect, who was hiding wounded in a boat under a tarp, shut down the entire city of Boston and the surrounding towns.
Add to the danger the ease with which almost anyone can legally purchase firearms in the U.S. — and the inability of the Congress to pass any kind of meaningful legislation requiring tougher background checks for gun purchasers, even given our horrific record of mass shootings.
It has yet to be determined, as of this writing, whether any of the Nairobi attackers was in fact an American-Somali. But the Boston bombing by two brothers of Chechen origin, like the earlier Fort Hood shooting, has already put us on notice of the danger of home-grown extremists in our midst, and the possibility that some already within our borders may have become radicalized and intent on violence.
The ready availability of firearms, the openness of our huge shopping malls and sports stadiums, and the possibility of home-grown terrorists on our soil should be enough to cause anyone looking at the carnage in Kenya from afar to reflect; it can happen here.
And what can we do about it?
We certainly cannot forfeit our openness, our freedoms, for then the terrorists have won. But better, tougher security checks at public spaces may be a step we need to take. I’ve remarked before in this space about how in Israel, for example, everyone entering a shopping mall, movie theater or restaurant has to go through a security check, either a metal detector or a bag search, and sometimes both. As a Post correspondent, I was reporting from Jerusalem a lot during a spate of suicide bombings from 2000 to 2003, and soon almost every restaurant and coffee shop had installed extra layers of security, including an extra of set blast doors or locking barricades that prevented suicide attackers from entering many establishments. Many assailants ended up blowing themselves up in front of establishments they could no longer easily penetrate.
But we Americans have to get over our passivity, our reflexive resistance to any form of inconvenience, and our intrinsic fear that any extra security measures automatically means empowering a governmental “Big Brother” bent on taking our rights away (and stripping us of our God-given right to bear arms).
And at the same time, we need to revisit the issue of gun control, again and again and again. I know the political stars are not aligned to pass any meaningful gun control legislation. But the argument needs to be made; if strengthening background checks can help keep high-powered weapons out of the hands of potential terrorists, doesn’t that seem like common sense?
I’m not at all hopeful on that front. But I am scared. And after seeing what happened in Nairobi, aren’t you scared too?