News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

April 24, 2010

Mark Bennett: McVeigh tapes remind us how terrorist acts have forced Americans to absorb additional disruptions

TERRE HAUTE — Mailbox smashing became the weird vandalism of choice around Terre Haute in the 1980s.

One clever guy outfoxed the vandals, though. He placed a small metal mailbox inside a larger metal mailbox, and filled the void between the two with cement. It looked like a normal mailbox. But a country road-roving rapscallion would feel a stinging rebuke when his aluminum baseball bat clanged up against this man’s postal receptacle.

It’s sad to comprehend how Americans’ lifestyles have been altered by rogues.

The days when people left their homes unlocked seems impossible now. In some places, deadbolts aren’t enough; only a home security system offers the necessary protection. Gas stations often require motorists to pay first before pumping; otherwise, a few people will try to drive off without paying. Stores fasten ink-filled, plastic tags to clothes items to deter shoplifters, which, of course, increases honest customers’ costs.

Mistrust has become ingrained in our society.

The most sinister invasions of our day-to-day activities linger from the deeds of terrorists, far transcending those other inconveniences.

The cold face of Tim McVeigh reared up last week on the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. MSNBC aired “The McVeigh Tapes: Confessions of an American Terrorist.” The broadcast featured audiotapes, culled from 45 hours of interviews with McVeigh, conducted by Buffalo News reporter Lou Michel on death row at Terre Haute’s Federal Correctional Complex before McVeigh’s execution in June 2001.

Angry at the U.S. government, McVeigh drove a rented Ryder truck, carrying a bomb, to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. He parked the truck, lit two fuses and ran. A few minutes after 9 a.m., shortly after a day care facility and the federal offices opened, the bomb exploded. One-hundred-sixty-eight people died, including 19 kids under the age of 5. Hundreds more were maimed. Thank goodness, McVeigh was caught and faced justice.

On the tapes, McVeigh chillingly and remorselessly told victims’ families to “get over it.” He said, “You’re not the first mother to lose a kid. You’re not the first grandparent to lose a granddaughter or grandson.”

His heartless rationalizations were nauseating. His brazen, diabolical, anything-goes tactics caused changes in access to America’s federal buildings, among other things.

In the past 15 years, new structures — including the federal courthouse on Ohio Street — must meet stringent security standards.

It’s farther off the road than the old building at Seventh and Cherry streets, with fewer public entrances. As a spokesman for the U.S. General Services Administration told the Tribune-Star in 2008, “Since Oklahoma City, one of the things that have been emphasized in new courthouse construction, even leased, is a separate circulation system for the public, judges and defendants in criminal cases so that they don’t have to travel the same hallways or elevators. That is an additional expense that courthouses 50 years ago didn’t have to worry about.”

The potential threats exposed by other terrorist acts have forced Americans to absorb additional disruptions.

A self-proclaimed Al Qaeda member, Richard Reid, tried to detonate a bomb in his shoe aboard a flight from Paris to Miami on Dec. 22, 2001, three months after the catastrophic 9/11 attacks. Passengers and flight attendants subdued Reid, foiling his plot. Airport security hasn’t been the same since.

“How many billions of shoes have been taken off at airports?” said Mark Hamm, professor of criminology at Indiana State University and author of “Terrorism As Crime: From Oklahoma City to Al Qaeda and Beyond.” “In what the citizens have to do to participate in the war on terrorism, [Reid’s attempt] may have had more of an effect than 9/11.”

The simultaneous Al Qaeda truck bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 killed more than 200 people and wounded more than 4,000. As a result, American embassies abroad are “impenetrable now,” Hamm said, referring to physical barriers in place. “Before, we never thought about that.”

A foiled airline bombing attempt in 2006, involving a mixture of sports drinks and explosive materials, caused airlines to prohibit passengers from carrying on liquids in common containers. Last Christmas, a Nigerian man intended to blow up a plane over Detroit with explosives sewn into his underwear, but failed. Since then, Hamm knows of a foreign student studying in America who’s had to undergo intensive searches while trying to fly to the United States — an experience that changed the young person’s typically easygoing demeanor.

Also in the wake of that Christmas incident, the Transportation Safety Administration plans to increase the number of airport full-body scanners by 500 this year, another 500 in 2011 and have 1,800 in use by 2014. Privacy and civil rights groups are challenging that practice. Nonetheless, a January poll by TripAdvisor, a travel advice service, showed that 70 percent of travelers favor enhanced security screenings, and 35 percent would back a ban on all carry-on luggage if it made flights more secure.

Even if it means forcing an 80-year-old woman to remove her shoes, that sort of “anti-terrorism theater” eases some people’s minds. “The more of these precautions we see, the safer we feel,” Hamm said.

The other shoe, so to speak, always seems to drop, though. Hamm saw a recent report of a suspected Al Qaeda operative found with a bomb hidden in his rectal cavity. “I saw that and said, ‘Whoa, we’ve turned a corner there,’” Hamm recalled. So what’s next — full body cavity searches?

Lord, help us.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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