If you believe that the country is generally safe from terrorism on U.S. soil, then an event like this is not going to change your mind. As former Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano put it after an unsuccessful attempt to blow up an Amsterdam-Detroit airline flight on Christmas Day 2009, “the system worked.” The police this weekend appear to have moved quickly and decisively: They got Rahami’s fingerprint from the unexploded bomb, matched him to surveillance videos, put his picture out to the public, and within two hours, a sharp-eyed police officer spotted him sleeping in the vestibule of a bar in Linden, N.J. Despite the fact that he fled and started “indiscriminately firing his weapon at passing vehicles” after the officer confronted him, he was subdued before anyone got seriously hurt.
But if you believe that the federal government and the Obama administration want to downplay the threat of terrorism, then the last 48 hours feels like a series of dodged bullets likely to invite complacency. It began with a strange verbal denial that what looked, sounded, and felt like terrorism might not meet some vague official definition of the term.