CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Coming to a mall near you? Hopefully not. But the al-Shabab terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping complex in Kenya could have been Kansas or Kentucky. Even some of the terrorists were allegedly Americans, and the layout and look of this far-distant mall was disturbingly familiar, not unlike the ones where we routinely shop. And that's scary -- an everyday outing turned into a horrendous bloodbath.
I was introduced to this troubling mix of the murderous and the mundane on my first trip to Northern Ireland 30-some years ago. Belfast initially looked like any other metro area -- until a short walk from the train station to a city-center bus stop took me through a gauntlet of guns. These were "friendly" guns, those of British troops patrolling the city during a terrorist campaign designed to disrupt daily life. Bars were bombed, buildings blown apart, and a dog fanciers' banquet at a hotel was turned into a chamber of death by an incendiary bomb. So you watched where you went and kept a sharp eye out for anything sinister or suspicious.
One of five articles I wrote in the aftermath of the Marathon bombing in Boston was specifically rejected by two papers who said I was an alarmist, sowing seeds of fear when none was needed. "Boston is not Belfast," replied one editor. Papers that did run that article evidently felt that I was "alerting," not "alarming," their readers. An alarmist "exaggerates a danger, causing needless worry or panic." Dictionaries don't define "alertist," but it would be a person who is "keenly aware of their surroundings, quick to notice any unusual danger."
Could someone have been alert enough to notice the Tsarnaev brothers -- or one of them -- removing his bulky backpack with a pressure-cooker bomb and placing it on the sidewalk at the feet of children and adults? Some Marathon watchers lost both feet and legs, three their lives. Would someone sounding the alarm -- admittedly a tough call -- have been branded an alarmist?
Didn't Russian intelligence give us a heads-up on the possible terrorist tendencies of Tamerlan Tsarnaev? I'd prefer an alarmist to someone asleep at the switch.
As horrendous as the 9/11 attacks were, flying planes into tall buildings didn't have the familiar feel (for most of us) of something so common as shopping at the mall or watching a sports event. My semi-rural township back in Ohio didn't have tall buildings, but overflows today with shopping malls and sporting events. Terrorists seek to inject battlefield fear into familiar settings, a bloody intersection of civilian life with instruments of death and destruction.
I wasn't exactly wallowing in blood during that first walk in Belfast from the train station to the bus stop. But I also had never had a gun pointed at me until then. A soldier in a passing military vehicle trained his rifle on me -- a lone male with a briefcase. And just as I arrived at the bus stop, an army jeep jumped the curb, deploying four soldiers who dropped to one knee with rifles pointed. One zeroed in on me and followed me step by step to the queue where people were waiting for the bus. The two women in front of me seemed to take no notice of the soldiers, chatting away about their shopping spree. But they knew they were there.
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Yes, an alarmist may be accused of "exaggerated" vigilance. But today's terrorist threat requires keeping a sharp eye out for suspicious people, packages, and, yes, backpacks. Call me an alertist, even if there is no such word.
Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.