In 2005, a leading terrorism expert predicted a massive attack on Las Vegas. Only, he got the killer's race wrong.
The entertainment capital has long been seen as a soft target. But it was an angry white American, not al-Qaeda, that committed unprecedented mayhem there.
By Aaron Barnhart
Upon hearing the grievous news out of Las Vegas Sunday night, I thought immediately of a prediction I had once read that just such an attack would someday strike the entertainment capital of the world.
The prediction had come from a former high-level counter-terrorism expert named Richard Clarke. He had seen it all coming: the mass killer on a suicide mission, the law enforcers unaware of his existence, the psychic gut punch to America's sense of safety that this orgy of violence was sure to bring about.
Clarke really only got one thing wrong in his prediction. He assumed the attack would be the work of radical Islamic terrorists.
It's striking that Clarke would not even consider an angry white man as a potential terrorist threat. After all, in 2005 — the year he made his prediction — the country was only a decade removed from the Oklahoma City bombing, the worst act of domestic terrorism prior to 9/11 and the brainchild of two American white men.
Looking back at Clarke's attempt at prediction 12 years later, it's clear that the media followed the lead of experts focused on external threats (which have an easier-to-follow "us versus them" storyline) and did not focus enough on the internal threats until forced to by the results of last year's election.
The man who knew
I learned about Clarke in 2002 through the chilling PBS documentary, "The Man Who Knew," about the former FBI agent John P. O'Neill. Clarke and O'Neill had teamed up to capture Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the man who led the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. By 2001, O'Neill and Clarke were convinced that bin Laden was going to try to hit the towers again.
After serving three U.S. presidents, Clarke became one of the media's go-to sources for comment about al-Qaeda and the threat of foreign terrorist groups. Others have been critical of Clarke, accusing him of foot-dragging on bin Laden during the Clinton years. But after 9/11, he was an authority journalists came to rely on. He had broken with the Bush Administration over its decision to invade Iraq, predicting that the war would only weaken the efforts to destroy al-Qaeda while adding thousands of volunteers to its forces.
Clarke has since made a living as a writer. In addition to writing books and essays on the threat of radical terrorism, he's penned four thrillers. As the cover to his first novel, The Scorpion's Gate, notes, “Sometimes you can tell more truth through fiction.”
And that's what Clarke was trying to do in 2005, when — writing in the influential political journal The Atlantic — he conjured up a lurid fantasy about what might happen in the future if Islamic jihadists set their sights on Sin City.
The Asian couple that blew up casinos
In the Atlantic piece, titled "Ten Years After," Clarke fancies himself giving an important address at Harvard in 2011, shortly after a second wave of al-Qaeda attacks has gripped the nation. He begins by recounting for his audience the first of the attacks, which has taken place in Las Vegas, a city whose openness would make it a soft target for terrorists.
Clarke describes in gruesome detail this fictionalized attack. It's carried out by husband-and-wife suicide bombers from an Asian country who could easily pass as tourists. They drive into Vegas in a van with Kansas license plates, having murdered the van's owners at an RV park outside of town.
Here, in Clarke's fictionalized account, is what happens next:
State troopers at the exit ramp to the city ignored the van. At 3:00 P.M. the streets were packed as crowds wandered the Strip. On Tropicana Avenue the man stopped briefly to let his partner out with an exchange of nods and a whispered statement: "God is great." The woman blended seamlessly into the flow of people walking into the Florentine casino ...
She walked to the roulette table, fifty feet from the front door, and pushed a detonator, blowing herself up. The explosion instantly killed thirty-eight people who were standing and sitting at nearby tables. The nails and ball bearings that flew out of the woman's vest and belt wounded more than a hundred others ... Just seconds later the man drove his van into the lobby of the Lion's Grand and detonated his cargo.
This bomb was designed to wreak tremendous damage that would remain in the consciousness of the American people for years to come. ... The long-term economic effects continue today: tourism in Las Vegas has never returned to its pre-2005 level, and unemployment in the city is at 28 percent.
In an interview that accompanied the piece, Clarke explained his motivation in writing it:
"What better way to stimulate debate about homeland security than to ... jump ahead about ten years and show what will happen if we don't improve our homeland-security posture before attacks occur?"
White men and terrorism
Las Vegas is reeling today from an attack of unspeakable horror. It has, indeed, stimulated debate — just not the kind that Richard Clarke imagined 12 years ago. No one's talking about homeland security, other than people who've convinced themselves that ISIS is behind this attack.
Instead, talk radio and cable news and online spent the day reviving the old debate over gun control. But that seemed pointless, given that a U.S.-born terrorist with no criminal record is unlikely ever to have trouble building an arsenal of high-powered weapons. (I also heard some attempts to discuss funding for mental health, but those fell flat since most people have realized that was just the gun lobby's attempt to change the subject after Sandy Hook.)
Rather than rehearse the old talking points, it seemed to me that the media's time would be better spent getting at this question: Why are white men endangering themselves and the rest of us at such an alarming rate?
As a white male, I'd welcome this discussion. The current wave of violence — not just murders but suicides, opioid abuse, and angry white nationalism — suggests that my people have given up on the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Which is amazing given that those words were drafted 240 years ago with white men only in mind.
Richard Clarke feared there would be an attack someday on Las Vegas. Well, it's happened. And in less time than it took his fictional terrorists to hijack an RV, drive across country and blow up two casinos, a real-life resident of Nevada checked into a resort and unleashed all this mayhem without even leaving his room.
We no longer have to imagine what such a terrorist would look like. He looks like us.