Two Failed Airplane Plots, Two Reactions
Eight years ago, a terrorist bomber’s attempt to blow up a transatlantic airliner was thwarted by a group of passengers, an incident that revealed some gaping holes in airline security just a few months after the attacks of Sept. 11. But it was six days before President George W. Bush, then on vacation, made any public remarks about the so-called “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid, and there were virtually no complaints from the press or any opposition Democrats that his response was sluggish or inadequate.
That stands in sharp contrast to the withering criticism President Barack Obama has received from Republicans and some in the press for his reaction to Friday’s incident on a Northwest Airlines flight heading for Detroit.
Yet, the similarities between last Friday’s incident and the attempted shoe bombing in 2001 are striking.
This year’s came attack came on Christmas. The attempt eight years ago took place on December 22. Obama was on vacation in Hawaii when the suspect, Omar Abdulmutallab, allegedly used plastic explosives in his try to blow up the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight. Bush was at Camp David when Reid used similar plastic explosives to try to blow up his Paris-to-Miami flight, which diverted to Boston after the incident.
Like the Obama White House, the Bush White House told reporters the president had been briefed on the incident and was following it closely. While the Obama White House issued a background statement through a senior administration official calling the incident an “attempted terrorist attack” on the same day it took place, the early official statements from Bush aides did not make the same explicit statement.
Bush did not address reporters about the Reid episode until December 28, after he had traveled from Camp David to his ranch in Texas.
Democrats do not appear to have criticized Bush over the delay. Many were wary of publicly clashing with the commander-in-chief, who was getting lofty approval ratings after what appeared to be a successful military campaign in Afghanistan. The media also seemed to have little interest in pressing Bush about the bombing, or the fact that the incident had revealed a previously unknown vulnerability in airplane security — that shoes could be used to hide chemicals or explosive devices.
I’ve previously defended Obama’s immediate reaction to the underwear bomber, including dismissing the idea that he should have ended his vacation. And, while it’s been some time — and took place before I started blogging — I don’t recall having any particular issue with how Bush handled the shoe bomber.
But the two plots took place in very different contexts.
Reid’s plot was mere months after 9/11, during which time Bush was overseeing a radical revamp of airline security procedures, the creation of TSA, the forming of the Department of Homeland Security (all of which I vehemently opposed as both silly and unconstitutional) and launched a war in Afghanistan (which I supported). So, not only was the public conditioned to think terrorist plots were normal but they were keenly aware that the president was handling the situation, even if they weren’t thrilled with how he was doing so.
Fast forward eight years. We haven’t had a terrorist attempt aboard an aircraft since Reid’s comically failed attempt to ignite his shoes. The public is complacent, correctly viewing airport security as a nuisance. The new president has, thankfully, not had to demonstrate leadership in the wake of a terrorist attack on American soil.
And, yet, we’ve only had a couple of politicians trying to make hay over Obama’s handling of this. And one of them’s Peter King, for goodness sakes.