"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Pioneer Square: What happened, what didn’t

Courthouse Pioneer Square, the Sunday after/pioneercourthousesquare.org

After a couple of days of news reports, a lot of the central questions about the abortive bombing of Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square remain. We’re beginning to know enough, though, to come to come conclusions and at least shape some of the relevant questions.

Some of those came out in this morning’s coverage in the Oregonian, of a story with still-massive holes (not the paper’s fault, of course – a lot hasn’t been released or isn’t available yet).

The choice of time and place was, as columnist Steve Duin notes, chosen well for effectiveness. It’s been nicknamed “Portland’s living room,” and there’s really nothing else like it among the larger Northwest cities – a genuine community gathering place in the middle of downtown, where street preachers may be shouting one hour, an arts display may be on the next, and a film or music event might be shown in the evening, while people all day come by and hang out. If Portland feels like a community, and has something of a neighborly feel (for large city), Pioneer Square is an important reason. You feel as if you’re welcome to just drop by and sit a spell – and you are. The Christmas tree lighting there, for central Portlanders, is second only to the tree setup in their own homes. An attack on the square is an attack on the community, in a unique way.

Adopt the Transportation Security mindset about dealing with such a threat, and what do you get? Backscatter devices on all the sidewalks? Pat-downs en route to and around downtown? Talk about destroying any feeling of community, or mutual trust.

One conclusion we evidently can reach out of this is that such tactics weren’t what foiled this bombing attempt: It was intelligence, information, patient undercover law enforcement work, the kind of effort that almost always is what stops incidents like this.

Saying much more specific than that remains difficult, though, because so many questions are still out there right now.

Most of those relate to the suspect, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old student at Oregon State University at Corvallis, and the nature of the investigation around him.

The Oregonian‘s reporting notes tht Mohamud’s Muslim family immigrated from Somalia and became naturalized citizens. Under what circumstances? Such immigration couldn’t have been easy. He is consistently described by people who have known him until recently as friendly, a recipient of good grades at school, a participant in sports and other activities – not the usual profile of a darkly plotting and bloodthirsty loner. He was evidently an observant Muslim, but not described as extremist or violent. His parents divorced – was that a factor? How and why did he get into contact with extremists in Pakistan and elsewhere on the far side of the globe, as he is said to have done early this year (and possibly some time before)? When and how did he cross a line from being a fairly ordinary member of the community to a jihadist who wanted (the criminal complaint says) to see thousands of innocent people, children among them, killed and maimed?

How did federal authorities happen on to him? We may never know entirely, and the feds may need to keep some of that under wraps for a long time. You get the sense it may have been picked up in the e-mails between Corvallis and Pakistan. But to what extent did the FBI undercover agents affect the chemistry of the situation? By their account, they provided information, transportation, a dry-run drill of the bombing (in rural Lincoln County), the van driven to downtown Portland and the “bomb” (a fake) itself. Insecure 19-year-olds can be malleable to influence; are we sure he would have carried out some violent act – this one or some other – as opposed simply to talking big about it, without the external interaction? (Remember that suicide bombers around the world of that age often are under a lot of influence from the people around them.) Were other people around him talking about jihad? If not, how did he come by the idea so strongly?

For now, the questions remain. But we may draw more than a few answers out of this, in the months ahead.

And we can be thankful, in this season, that this was a foiled plot.

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  1. fortboise said:

    How the FBI agents “affected the chemistry of the situation,” as you so delicately put it, would seem to be the key question for a competent defense.

    I wonder if this seemingly hapless 19-year-old will get one of those.

    Our gratitude for a “foiled” plot must be measured by what degree it was also a manufactured plot. It sounds like the kid was connected to pretty much no one, and with the limited facts before us, there would seem ample doubt that the FBI agents carefully nurtured the plot before they quashed it.

    I’m all for intelligence over theater when it comes to security, but the instance at hand seems more of the latter than the former.

    November 28, 2010

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