If Sayfullo Saipov had carried out his run-over terror attack in Israel rather than Manhattan, he would no longer be among the living. Cops, soldiers and/or gun-carrying civilians would have terminated him on the spot. But since he carried out his outrage in New York, Saipov can now mock his interrogators, express pride in his achievements, promote radical Islam and generally pour salt on the raw wounds of New York. Over the next few days, he will be the target of all the rage and frustration that his crime will generate.
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But there are similarities as well, made more noticeable on Wednesday against the backdrop of the ceremonies to mark the 22nd anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Right-wing radicals and Donald Trump didn’t wait long before they started “dancing on the blood of the victims,” as the Israeli saying puts it. They immediately accused New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of being responsible for the terror attack, because he once helped construct the green card lottery system, of which Saipov, reportedly, was a beneficiary. Trump and his helpers paid brief lip service to condemning radical Islam and its agents in America, but they reserved their wrath for immigration and Schumer. A little bit more, and they could have broken out in an American version of the right-wing song that accompanied Israel’s late prime minister in his last living months: “In blood and fire we will get rid of Schumer.”
Diverting attention elsewhere is a variation on the well-worn Trump theme of attacking first and asking questions later and of throwing juicy bones for his base to sink its teeth into. To counter the probe of his collusion with Russia, Trump has concocted fanciful conspiracy theories that Hillary Clinton sold America’s uranium to the Russians. To extract the maximum political benefits from a New York attack that happened on his watch, Trump serves up Schumer, with or without connection to him being Jewish, as a liberal conniver whose machinations cost lives. Within hours, Schumer became the devil incarnate, garnering thousands of abusive comments, posts and tweets on social media.
But even without the fuel that Trump is pouring on, the attack on West St. in Manhattan was going to reignite the national debate about immigration and radicalization. The immediate association raised by the actions of the Uzbekistan-born Saipov was to the Kyrgyzstan-born Tsernaev brothers who carried out the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Like him, they too were radicalized and indoctrinated after coming to the U.S. with the help of materials and information from the Internet.
Now Trump is pushing for the kind of immigration reform that he insinuates might have prevented Saipov and similar potential terrorists from entering America. Trump wants a merit-based system rather than the diversity-driven lottery system, which many people fear is just a euphemism for accepting immigrants only from nice, usually white countries instead of suspect countries with dubious colors like all the various Stans. Saipov’s attack, in fact, is likely to tarnish the image of his fellow Uzbeks first and foremost, as New Yorkers suddenly notice that the country that supplies so many of the city’s barbers and hairdressers is also one of the largest recruitment sources for ISIS.
Of course, the political maneuvering, which started within hours after the attack, does not diminish the tragedy of the victims of the attack, many of whom are not American. One also shouldn’t discount the potential shock to New Yorkers generated by an attack that took place only a few hundred yards away from the arena of the city’s greatest trauma, which took place on September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center. The Lower West Side area of Manhattan, where the attack took place, as well as the promenade and lawns of Hudson River Park, symbolize New York’s resilient comeback from 9/11, the explosive growth of the city’s southwestern corner and the sweet lives of those lucky and wealthy enough to live in the area. In this regard, running over bike riders in their designated bicycle lane drives a stake through a quintessential symbol of New York’s current revival.
But even if one accounts for the natural rage that such an attack engenders, and one adds the amplification supplied by Trump, it’s hard to see Saipov’s attack, horrific as it was, as a game-changer. By virtue of being a terror attack with a perpetrator linked to Islam, the attack will attract saturation media coverage for the next few days, which might exceed even that accorded to last month’s horrific Las Vegas shooting bloodbath, in which 55 people were killed, which is now virtually forgotten. The earth will start to move only if and when another attack takes place within a short period of time, especially one that will exact a higher number of casualties. That’s when the solitary incident turns into a scary trend. Terror-stricken Europe, Americans will tell themselves, is here.
For the time being, however, the attack will not provide Trump with an escape hatch from the Russia-collusion investigations and won’t give him a platform to reverse his nose-diving approval ratings. Trump, in fact, may have no interest in prolonging media coverage of the attack at all, in light of his Asia trip that starts today, which includes crucial visits to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing.
In any case, however, as long as his smartphone is at his side, Trump can always continue inflaming his base from afar, inciting against his enemies by remote and stirring up trouble all around.
His reactions on Wednesday to the attack indicated that Trump has no intention of desisting from his inciting and divisive ways or any wish to morph into a unifying national figure. If he tries to suggest “national reconciliation and fraternity,” as Netanyahu did during the Rabin memorial in the Knesset, he will be greeted with even louder guffaws than Bibi was. If the terrorists give him enough grounds to consolidate his public standing, undermine his political enemies and remake American democracy and rule of law to his desire, Trump is signaling them that he is ready, willing and able to proceed.