THE BLOG

Terrorism in a Very Small Place

12/20/2010 09:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Terrorism doesn't happen here, you understand. Not in small-town Oregon. It's something that happens in other places, in big cities and faraway lands.

"I love our little bubble," lamented the woman to the local newspaper in Corvallis, one of whose citizens had just tried to detonate a car bomb in Portland. "But it's been popped."

Bubbles don't pop here, you understand. Not on this side of Paradise. Not in this incredibly lovely spot nestled amid the emerald fields and mountains of the Willamette Valley. Yes, a young Somali immigrant named Mohamed Osman Mohamud was arrested the day after Thanksgiving for attempting to commit mass murder at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Yes, someone hurled a firebomb through the window of the Corvallis mosque two days after Mohamud's arrest.

Could this really have happened here? Our town doesn't produce car bombers or arsonists, you understand. This is one of those progressive college towns where the city council discusses imposing green taxes in the middle of a recession. Where people bike to work, the deer (bless their legally protected hides) calmly saunter down the sidewalks, and someone is always flying off to Haiti or Africa or Afghanistan on a humanitarian mission. We celebrate diversity, gay marriage, and tolerance for all. Indeed, two nights after the mosque attack, a woman from the local synagogue organized a vigil at the mosque that inspired 300 people to hold candles on a rainy Northwest night. Though the Portland incident could have killed hundreds, the attack on the mosque (which only damaged the front office) drew far more attention. Letter after letter in the local paper vowed that our town was not a place of hate.

It can't be a place of hate, because our town is different, you understand. Maybe other towns tolerate bigotry. But we don't watch Fox News and support unjust wars. Our town has been voted one of the best and safest places to live in America. How could a mass murderer come from such a loving place, surrounded by trees and bike lanes and organic food stores? In fact, Mohamud grew up in the Portland suburbs, and only moved to Corvallis to attend Oregon State University. So he wasn't really a resident after all, was he? And perhaps the FBI entrapped him in a sting operation. Gave him dummy explosives and waited like spiders for their prey to push the button on the cell-phone trigger. Yes, it was the FBI that popped our bubble.

Perhaps it's my fault for being too thick-skinned. I know what it is like to live under the shadow of terrorism. Our home was 10 miles from the Pentagon on 9/11; my wife watched the flames from her office window before they evacuated her building. I've told that story in Corvallis, and people look at me like I've just described a trip to the Moon.

Because terrorism doesn't belong here. We move to progressive communities in the Northwest, or California, or Vermont, to escape the madness. From our secluded oases of affluence and intellect, we sally forth to save the world from its troubles. How dare those troubles come here!

We have lost something precious, you understand. Not physical safety. Despite the Portland plot, it's hard to imagine some terrorist in Yemen placing Corvallis at the top of his hit list. Besides, why would anyone want to bomb us? We carefully sort our recyclables.

No, what we have lost is the visceral belief in the protective power of goodness. We embraced all the right causes, said all the right things, and it didn't save us. Bad things happen to good towns. It's just not fair.

We must rebuild our bubble. We know that it will be a difficult task. Bubble are so fragile, so artificial. They must be sustained through vigorous means. So we will organize vigils and write letters. We will examine ourselves for the slightest trace of whatever it is that turns people into terrorists.

And maybe, just maybe, we can restore our bubble.

Michael Peck is an editor for the Military Times magazine. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon.