In a rational world, we would interpret the inept crimes of accused pipe bomber Ahmad Khan Rahami as evidence that 15 years after the big one, the terrorist threat in America is akin to a brush fire—the kind of thing that inevitably flares up and causes some damage before the experts put it out. Instead, thanks to the cable news channels and some in the Web and print space, we’ve turned it into a mighty conflagration. Donald Trump, ever the opportunist, sounded this alarm Saturday shortly after the bomb went off in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. “Nobody knows exactly what’s going on. But boy, we are living in a time—we better get very tough, folks,” Trump said, when the shrapnel was still sizzling.
The cable news channels jumped on the story in a galvanic fashion for a number of reasons. First, the story happened in their New York backyard. It is an unwritten rule of assaults, murders, natural disasters and other injurious acts that their news potential is inversely proportional to the distance from the news organization’s headquarters. For example, if a pipe bomb went off in Kansas City, the news response of the New York-based networks would be middling. But if a New York City cop broke his toe kicking a suspect in the butt, we’d be just a few chyrons away from a breaking news alert.