Phase one of the Chelsea bombing investigation ended Monday when suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami was taken into custody in New Jersey after quick and impressive police work.
It was a tense few days — three bombs, one unexploded, another undetonated bag of pipe bombs, all of which were ultimately connected to one person. There were injuries, but mostly there were close calls.
Officials said their investigation continues to look for a motive and other possible conspirators, but there was no indication that Rahami was part of a terror cell. No link to foreign actors wasestablished.
That, however, didn’t prevent the quick politicization of the bombing spree. The fight over its ramifications could be seen in the inevitable statements and accusations and fast-moving conclusions from nearly every politician who stepped in front of a microphone.
While most gave the deserved tribute to the resiliency of the tri-state area, there was also a raging debate about whether to call the situation “terrorism” or at what point.
Some officials, like Mayor Bill de Blasio, appeared leery to use the loaded word early on even to describe an act that seemed designed to inspire terror, perhaps given the words’ connotations — fear and panic, but also an association with Islam due to the predominance of the Islamic State.
Caution is important, because unlike terror attacks sponsored by foreign nationals, recent attacks carried out by U.S. citizens are trickier to track, prevent or even explain. Those who carry out terrorism in this fashion might actually be motivated by any number of grievances, in addition to or instead of extremism. Naming them Islamic terrorists — or even bombing the Islamic State — does not necessarily stop inspired attacks.
Yet such caution in characterization, which did not impede the investigation, was lambasted by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and others as political correctness run amok. Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton said Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric serves as a recruiting tool for militants. So a potentially tragic event quickly got on the fast track to being another marker of messy national division. Disappointing.
The bombs have now been subsumed into our messy current discussions. On Monday, for example, the campaign account of Rep. Lee Zeldin, a former major in the U.S. Army, tweeted after Rahami’s capture: “You are welcome Colin Kaepernick.” Kaepernick is the NFL quarterback who has refused to stand for the national anthem to protest systemic racism.
The semantics won’t be what keeps Americans safe. Safety comes from swift and efficient old-fashioned police work and deep intelligence that so often brings suspects like this one to justice. And it comes by remaining rational and focused on the issue at hand, not needlessly dividing or alienating. Failing to do so would be a disturbing result and distressing capstone to the events in New York and New Jersey. — The editorial board