Terror in the Heartland

Wichita is rarely mentioned in the national news, which is part of the appeal of our humble prairie hometown, but it briefly appeared in the headlines on Friday when a local nutcase allegedly attempted to blow up the city’s main airport.
We use the term “allegedly” only in the in the perfunctory journalistic sense, because everything that has been made public suggests the fellow did indeed attempt to blow up the airport. A complaint filed in federal court charges that the defendant, reportedly a recent convert to Islam whose employment as an avionics technician for one of the local aircraft companies gave him a security clearance to the airport’s tarmac, had expressed a desire to express his enthusiasm for his newfound religion by blowing something up, worked with undercover agents posing as terrorists to acquire explosives, written a suicide note stating his intention to die in the bombing, and then driven what he thought was a working bomb to the airport, where he was promptly arrested by the authorities. Unless it transpires that federal, state, and local law enforcement have conspired to make this all up, or some sort entrapment defense can be made, it seems a solid case.
So thorough was the investigation that all of the involved officials are assuring the public that at no point was there any danger to anyone. The local newspaper reports that there weren’t even any flight delays at the airpor as a result of the incident, which is fortunate for any travelers who were trying to get out of town as it’s a sure bet they had to make a connecting flight to get wherever they were going. This lack of suspense or even inconvenience was no doubt a reason for the relative lack attention paid the plot by the national media, although we suspect that it’s also because they long ago lost interest in reporting on the continuing threat of Islamist terrorism. Such stories offend the multi-cultural sensibilities of the modern press, and usually require a sidebar about the always-threatened but never-realized threat of anti-Muslim backlash, and by now it’s become such drudgery that the average American reporter would even prefer to write about Obamacare. Had the alleged perpetrator been with any of the city’s 440-some Christian churches or the locally robust Republican party it would have stopped the presses, but these days a “lone wolf” Islamist terrorist is just another dog-bites-man story that requires an exculpatory dogs-are-a-species-of-peace sidebar.
What national coverage the story did get couldn’t resist the “terror in the heartland” angle, with the frightening implication that if it could happen here it could anywhere the stories might run. Over in England the venerable Telegraph noted that plot was directed at the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, finding the moniker a reminder that “this is the American heartland, far away from the usual targets for terrorist plots and breeding grounds for extremism,” but like their American counterparts they underestimate the rich cultural diversity of this city. One of the plotters of the first attempt to blow the World Trade Center in New York City had attended the local state university and become radicalized while attending services at a nearby mosque, and Wichita is as likely a location for a terror plot as anyplace else. The city might be perceived as a soft target, even though we’re subjected to big-city levels of scrutiny anytime we try to enter City Hall to pay a no-seat-belts ticket or get into one of the local arenas for a basketball game, and the propaganda value of a strike in the “nation’s heartland” would probably be as valuable as one in a more populous and prominent city on one of the coasts.
Even here, though, the story has been largely ignored. The local media gave it thorough coverage but not the round-the-clock and fill-the-front-page treatment afforded the occasional abortion flaps or hail storm, and the reports have given it a Wichita flavor that out-of-town outlets can’t comprehend. We were intrigued to note that the alleged perpetrator was a graduate of Wichita Heights High School, our alma mater, and thus joins the BTK serial murderer as one of its more infamous alumni, but we still think Heights is the goodest school in town. Most of the other reported details about the defendant, including his employment with an aircraft company and his slovenly appearance and his inconspicuous residence in a working class neighborhood, all seem very familiar and therefore quite unsettling. It could happen here, apparently, and this does suggest it might happen anywhere.
Foiled terror plots have become so commonplace, though, that they no longer prompt much remark even down the street from where they occur. The conversations in the bars, coffeehouses, and churches we frequent is more likely to turn to the Wichita State Wheatshockers’ 10-and-0 start to the college basketball season, or the recently tolerable weather we’ve been having after a miserable cold snap, or the terror-like damage being wrought by that damned Obamacare, and until such time as the terrorists get lucky the subject will be old news.

— Bud Norman

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