A Chilling Reminder

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Friday, August 11, 2006

WITH NEARLY five years having passed without a repetition of Sept. 11, the threat of terrorism had come to seem to many as more theoretical than real. Yesterday's news changed that in a hurry.

British officials announced that they had foiled a plot to cause "mass murder on an unimaginable scale." Terrorists planned to blow up a large number of airliners flying from Britain to the United States. It was, said Michael Chertoff, U.S. secretary of homeland security, "a plot that is certainly about as sophisticated as any we've seen in recent years."

The first conclusion, as we've learned during the past five years, is that you have to be careful in drawing conclusions. In the past, U.S. officials have breathlessly announced the disruption of terrorist designs that proved, in subsequent days, less formed or horrific than claimed. In other cases, it has taken time to uncover whether, for example, plots are homegrown or hatched from abroad. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said that the latest conspiracy "had the earmarks of an al-Qaeda plot," but all officials stressed that their investigation was continuing.

But if the inquiry fills out the outline provided yesterday, it will serve, first, as a chilling reminder of how many people remain committed to murdering innocent civilians; and, second, as a reassuring reminder of the solid police work (in this case, in Britain) unseen by most of us. There will continue to be legitimate questions about the workings and organization of homeland security departments here and abroad and about whether vast sums appropriated since 2001 have been spent wisely. But the emergence of one terrorist plot from the shadows should bring to mind the many men and women in the United States and elsewhere working every day with determination, and usually without credit, to block such plots.

There has been a lot of discussion about insufficient resources devoted to the protection of ports, railways or chemical plants. Those other potential targets may indeed need more attention. But airliners remain a high-profile and therefore attractive target for terrorists.

It's inevitable that politicians will weave this latest development into campaign narratives. Critics of the administration will say it proves that President Bush and his wars have not made the nation safer and that more effort has to be made to reduce the alienation of Muslims in Europe and elsewhere. Bush partisans will say it proves the need for his aggressive approach. "This is a war Islamic fascists started -- and it is a war they intend to prosecute to the end," White House official Peter H. Wehner wrote in an e-mail yesterday. "In the face of that, 'Come Home, America' is not a sufficient response. Retreating from Iraq and 'redeploying' to Okinawa is not a sufficient response. Criticizing the surveillance of terrorists' calls into and out of America is not a sufficient response. And weakening the Patriot Act is not a sufficient response."

In our view, point-scoring from either side isn't very useful. Over the past couple of years, as the threat seemed to recede, maybe it seemed okay to shape positions on terrorism based on polling results and electoral prospects. Now, we're reminded, that isn't acceptable, and neither are the stale and unproductive either-or arguments the nation gradually slid into. We have to conduct intensive police investigations and protect civil liberties; protect the ports and take the fight to the enemy and reach out to broader Muslim communities. And we need to understand that no approach is going to make the nation absolutely safe anytime soon.

Americans seem to understand that, if the patience shown at airports yesterday is any indication. New security rules imposed considerable inconvenience, which may persist. But yesterday's news also was a reminder that inconvenience is a lot preferable to the alternative.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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