If nothing else, the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should remind us that the “war on terror” (oh, that now banished phrase!) was not dreamed up by some neocon conspiracy bent on curtailing Americans’ civil liberties and on colonizing poor defenseless countries. It is nothing but a simple, accurate description of the threat we face from Islamist extremists bent on mass murder to advance their deranged worldview.
It is not only luck that has kept us (relatively) safe since 9/11, aside from a few random nuts like the Beltway sniper (John Allen Muhammad) and the Fort Hood shooter (Major Malik Nadal Hasan). There has been no lack of larger plots against American targets here and abroad. A few, such as the attempted bombings by Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, have been foiled by a combination of bad planning on the part of the terrorists and active resistance by airline passengers. Many more plots, such as the attempt to blow up airliners flying across the Atlantic by using liquid explosives, have been defeated by active intelligence and law enforcement work. A vital contribution to that work has been made by the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 changes, which have made it easier to wiretap suspects, share intelligence, and (don’t forget) aggressively interrogate captured terrorists and keep them in custody even if they cannot be convicted beyond a shadow of a doubt in a civil court.
Unfortunately all too many people have drawn the wrong lesson from these post-9/11 successes, concluding that we are so safe that we can go back to the pre-9/11 status quo, back when we treated terrorism as a law-enforcement problem and nothing more. This has become the conventional wisdom of the mainstream, left-wing of the Democratic Party and a tiny, right-wing fringe of the Republican Party (Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan), which see the U.S. government as the biggest threat we face—not al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers.
It would be unfair to say that President Obama has bought into this worldview. To his credit, he has continued an active program of using drones and Special Forces to assassinate terrorist kingpins from Pakistan to Somalia; has ramped up our military efforts in Afghanistan; and has continued an active program of intelligence and military cooperation designed to allow states such as Yemen and the Philippines to fight their own wars on terror. Moreover, he has signed off on wider wiretapping and intelligence-gathering authority than the ACLU is comfortable with. But there are certainly some worrisome trends evident from this administration, which insists on trying Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in a civilian court, which has banned the use of all stress techniques in interrogation, and which continues releasing detainees from Guantanamo, many of whom go right back to the sorts of activities that got them interred in the first place. And let us not forget the president’s unwillingness to get tough with Iran, whose nuclear-weapons program could before long radically increase the chances of our allies’ suffering a nuclear terrorist attack.
Obama has actually been a little tougher on terrorism (and Iraq and Afghanistan) than his record as an ultra-liberal senator would have led us to expect; certainly a lot tougher than Michael Moore or his ilk would like him to be. But not perhaps as tough as the situation demands. If there is any good that comes out of the attempted bombing of the Detroit flight, or the Iranians’ rejections of his naive overtures, it is that he may finally shed some of his remaining illusions about the world and start acting more as a wartime commander in chief should.