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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Reading List: Soft Target

Hunter, Stephen. Soft Target. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4391-3870-0.
This has to be among the worst nightmares of those few functionaries tasked with the “anti-terrorist” mission in the West who are not complacent seat-warmers counting the days until their retirement or figuring out how to advance their careers or gain additional power over the citizens whose taxes fund their generous salaries and benefits. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, a group of Somali militants infiltrate and stage a hostage-taking raid on “America, the Mall” in a suburb of Minneapolis (having nothing to do, of course, with another mega-mall in the vicinity). Implausibly, given the apparent provenance of the perpetrators, they manage to penetrate the mall's SCADA system and impose a full lock-down, preventing escape and diverting surveillance cameras for their own use.

This happens on the watch of Douglas Obobo, commandant of the Minnesota State Police, the son of a Kenyan graduate student and a U.S. anthropologist who, after graduating from Harvard Law School, had artfully played the affirmative action card and traded upon his glibness to hop from job to job, rising in the hierarchy without ever actually accomplishing anything. Obobo views this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to demonstrate how his brand of conciliation and leading from behind can defuse a high-profile confrontation, and thwarts efforts of those under his command to even prepare backup plans should negotiations with the hostage takers fail.

Meanwhile, the FBI tries to glean evidence of how the mall's security systems were bypassed and how the attackers were armed and infiltrated, and comes across clues which suggest a very different spin on the motivation of the attack—one which senior law enforcement personnel may have to seek the assistance of their grandchildren to explain. Marine veteran Ray Cruz finds himself the man on the inside, Die Hard style, and must rely upon his own resources to take down the perpetrator of the atrocities.

I have a few quibbles. These are minor, and constitute only marginal spoilers, but I'll put them behind the curtain to avoid peeving the easily irritated.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • On p. 97, FBI sniper Dave McElroy fires at Ray Cruz, who he takes to be one of the terrorists. Firing down from the roof into the mall, he fails to correct for the angle of the shot (which requires one to hold low compared to a horizontal shot, since the distance over which the acceleration of gravity acts is reduced as the cosine of the angle of the shot). I find it very difficult to believe that a trained FBI sniper would make such an error, even under the pressure of combat. Hunters in mountain country routinely make this correction.
  • On p. 116 the garbage bag containing Reed Hobart's head is said to weigh four pounds. The mass of an average adult human head is around 5 kg, or around 11 pounds. Since Hobart has been described as a well-fed person with a “big head” (p. 112), he is unlikely to be a four pound pinhead. I'd put this down to the ever-green problem of converting between republican and imperial units.
  • Nikki Swagger's television call sign switches back and forth between WUFF and WUSS throughout the book. I really like the idea of a WUSS-TV, especially in Minneapolis.
  • On p. 251, as the lawyers are handing out business cards to escapees from the mall, the telephone area code on the cards is 309, which is in Illinois. Although I grant that it's more likely such bipedal intestinal parasites would inhabit that state than nice Minnesota, is it plausible they could have gotten to the scene in time?
Spoilers end here.  

Had, say, 200 of the 1000 patrons of the mall taken hostage availed themselves of Minnesota's concealed carry law, and had the mall not abridged citizens' God-given right to self-defence, the 16 terrorists would have been taken down in the first 90 seconds after their initial assault. Further, had the would-be terrorists known that one in five of their intended victims were packing, do you think they would have tried it? Just sayin'.

This is an excellent thriller, which puts into stark contrast just how vulnerable disarmed populations are in the places they gather in everyday life, and how absurd the humiliating security theatre is at barn doors where the horses have fled more than a decade ago. It is in many ways deeply cynical, but that cynicism is well-justified by the reality of the society in which the story is set.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

Posted at May 17, 2012 22:53