Living under threat

Investigators are still sifting through the evidence left behind by Saturday's would-be car bomber, whose explosives-packed Nissan Pathfinder was discovered in New York's Times Square just as evening theater-goers converged on the district. Though the bomber's identity remains unknown, one thing is already clear: Whoever planned the attack intended to do grievous harm. Had the explosives detonated, the crude device might have killed or injured scores of innocent bystanders, and possibly many more.

It's too early to speculate whether Saturday's attack was the work of foreign terrorists, domestic malcontents or even some deadly combination of the two. New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly described the bomb's construction as "amateurish" compared to the sophisticated improvised explosive devices used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. That, and a police description of a middle-age white male suspect videotaped leaving the scene, suggest homegrown terrorists may have been involved. On the other hand, the Pakistani Taliban reportedly took credit for the attack on an Islamist website, though New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said there's no evidence to support that claim. Authorities are right to say that, for the moment, they're not ruling any possibilities out.

At this stage, the biggest lesson to emerge from the weekend's near tragedy is just how essential it is for ordinary people to be alert to possible threats. The bomb-laden vehicle was first spotted by two street vendors who noticed it was parked illegally on the street with the keys in the ignition and its hazard lights flashing. They immediately notified a mounted patrol officer, who called for backup and began evacuating the area after seeing smoke inside the car and hearing loud popping sounds authorities later determined were commercial fireworks intended to detonate the other explosives in the vehicle — two plastic containers of gasoline, a couple of propane gas tanks and a metal locker filled with up to 250 pounds of fertilizer the would-be bomber apparently thought would produce a bigger blast.

New York hasn't experienced a terrorist attack since the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, but the quick response by the two Times Square vendors shows that New Yorkers haven't become complacent about security. Neither should anyone else. The weekend's attack targeted one of the most high-profile places on the planet, but it could have occurred anywhere. Who would have thought the federal building in Oklahoma City was an inviting terrorist target before Timothy McVeigh's 1995 truck bomb there? There's no telling where another attack may take place, and people just need to use common sense in deciding what circumstances are unusual enough they might constitute a threat.

Duane Jackson and Lance Orton, the two street vendors now being hailed as heroes for noticing something amiss about the Nissan Pathfinder parked near Broadway, told reporters that they are accustomed to looking out for their crowded little patch of New York City. In the past, they've alerted police about pickpockets and other petty criminals who prey on visitors to the area, but their heroism in this case boils down to simply caring enough about their fellow citizens to take action when their suspicions were aroused by the sight of smoke in the car and the sound of popping noises. As Mr. Jackson put it, "if you see something, you should say something."

Mr. Jackson told reporters that he and the other Vietnam veterans who have special permits to sell their wares on the street know the beat cops in the area by their first names and have their cell phone numbers. His willingness to sound an alarm highlights the fact that although high-tech security videos may eventually prove instrumental in tracking down the individual or group responsible for this crime, what really averted a potentially tragic loss of life was nothing more complicated than people acting neighborly. That's a lesson citizens and police everywhere should take to heart about the value of building relationships and fostering a culture of mutual respect and trust in which everyone feels like they have a stake in keeping our communities safe.

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