Michael Bloomberg, now running for president of the United States, has never held any elected office except mayor of New York City. So he doesn’t have a concrete track record on foreign policy for Americans to evaluate.
However, a largely forgotten episode from a decade ago demonstrates that, on this subject, Bloomberg is right in the mainstream of U.S. politics. That is, he lies about the motivation of terrorists attacking America.
On the evening of May 1, 2010, a Nissan Pathfinder SUV filled with fertilizer and propane was discovered in New York City’s Times Square. If it had exploded, it could have killed dozens or even hundreds, but it was disarmed and no one was hurt.
That same night in Washington, D.C., Barack Obama appeared at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. To the laughter of the assembled crowd, Obama joked about killing the Jonas Brothers with a predator drone.
Then-New York Mayor Bloomberg was in attendance at the dinner. When notified of the potential car bomb incident, he hurried back to the city, where he declared, “Terrorists around the world, who feel threatened by the freedoms that we have, always focus on those symbols of freedoms — and that is New York City.”
Two days after the Nissan was found in Times Square, a 30-year-old Pakistani American named Faisal Shahzad was arrested at John F. Kennedy airport as he tried to board a flight to Dubai. Bloomberg then offered much the same view as before: “We will not be intimidated by those who hate the freedoms that make the city and this country so great.” (Bloomberg also stated: “We will not tolerate any bias or backlash against Pakistani or Muslim New Yorkers. … [This is] the city where you can practice your religion and say what you want to say and be in charge of your own destiny, and we’re going to keep it that way.”)
Shahzad pleaded guilty the next month and used the occasion to attempt to explain why he had tried to kill New Yorkers. He did not say anything about hating America’s freedoms. Instead, he said, “Until the hour the U.S. pulls its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, and stops the drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and in Pakistan, and stops the occupation of Muslim lands, and stops killing the Muslims, and stops reporting the Muslims to its government, we will be attacking U.S.”
That October, Shahzad was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He again sought to justify his attack — and again made no mention of American freedoms. “We are only Muslims trying to defend our people, honor, and land,” he told the judge in the case. “But if you call us terrorists for doing that, then we are proud terrorists, and we will keep on terrorizing until you leave our land and people at peace.” When asked by the judge why he had tried to carry out terrorism that would kill children, Shahzad responded, “Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq … they kill women, children, they kill everybody.”
Moreover, before Shahzad’s attempted act of terrorism, he had often expressed similar anger in private about U.S. foreign policy. “Everyone knows the current situation of Muslim World,” Shahzad had written in a 2006 email to friends, reported by the New York Times after his arrest. “Can you tell me a way to save the oppressed? And a way to fight back when rockets are fired at us and Muslim blood flows? In Palestine, Afghan, Iraq, Chechnya and elsewhere.”
Despite these facts, Bloomberg never disavowed his initial statements. When asked whether Bloomberg today stands by his words from 2010, his campaign advisor Stu Loeser responded: “We are not backing off what the Mayor said about terrorists that night in Times Square, even though it wasn’t specifically directed to Shahzad.”
When provided with extensive information about the stated motivation of terrorists, and asked whether Bloomberg had based his views on any specific evidence, Loeser said, “We do not agree with this take on this issue.” Notably, the website for Bloomberg’s campaign touts his plans for “evidence-based” policymaking, and Bloomberg’s longtime motto is “In God we trust. Everybody else bring data.”
Bloomberg’s deceit on this subject is standard operating procedure for U.S. politicians. The former mayor was clearly echoing President George W. Bush. “Americans are asking, ‘Why do they hate us?’” Bush said in 2001, nine days after the September 11 attacks, in a famous address to Congress. “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”
In reality, Osama bin Laden had published a “Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holiest Sites” in 1996. In it, he did not decry American freedom of religion or speech. Instead, he spoke of how, due to America and Israel, “the people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice.” Bin Laden went on, “Muslims’ blood became the cheapest and their wealth and assets looted by the hands of the enemies. Their blood was spilled in Palestine and Iraq. The horrifying pictures of the massacre of Qana, in Lebanon, are still fresh in our memory.”
All signs are that this was indeed what was behind Al Qaeda’s actions. According to the 9/11 Commission report, Khalid Sheik Mohammed originally wanted to pilot one of the planes himself — so that he could land it at a U.S. airport, kill all the male passengers, and “deliver a speech excoriating U.S. support for Israel, the Philippines, and repressive governments in the Arab world.”
Bush’s claims so irritated bin Laden that he specifically responded to them in 2004. “Oh American people,” he said in a taped broadcast on Al Jazeera, “I am speaking to tell you about the ideal way to avoid another Manhattan, about war and its causes and results. … Contrary to Bush’s claims that we hate freedom, let him tell us why we did not attack Sweden, for example.”
Behind the scenes, U.S. foreign policy elites generally agree that Al Qaeda was telling the truth, while essentially all American politicians misrepresent the roots of terrorism.
“The narrative that jihadist extremists attack the West because ‘they hate our freedoms’ is both a false and outdated one,” says Adam Wunische, of the Quincy Institute, a new Washington, D.C.-based think tank focused on promoting a more restrained foreign policy. “Scholarship is consistent in its findings that modern terrorism is motivated not by grievances about the culture of the West, but the military footprint abroad and the intrusive foreign policies of specific countries in the West, particularly the United States.”
For instance, British intelligence told U.K. policymakers in 2003 that if the U.K. joined an invasion of Iraq, “the threat from Al Qaida will increase.” The Defense Department’s Science Board wrote in a 2004 report that “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.” A senior official in the Bush administration told Esquire that, without U.S. actions in the Mideast, “bin Laden might still be redecorating mosques and boring friends with stories of his mujahideen days in the Khyber Pass.”
The motivation of Bloomberg and company is obvious: They like current U.S. foreign policy and want to prevent a debate about it. Americans probably are willing to face the risk of terrorism for our freedoms, but it’s not clear that we like our foreign policy enough to die for it.
In the service of preventing such a debate, Bloomberg also told a smaller subsidiary lie in 2010. When Shahzad pleaded guilty, Bloomberg said in a statement that “we will continue doing everything possible to keep our City safe.” But this was obviously false. Bloomberg wouldn’t do everything possible to keep New York safe, since he wasn’t even willing to take the simple step of telling the truth about Shahzad’s actions. We can expect the same level of concern for our lives if Bloomberg becomes president.