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Phil-osophically Speaking - January 8, 2010

Vats of ink have been spilled regarding the fiasco of flight 253 to Detroit on Christmas Day. If not for the quick thinking and action of some of its passengers and crew, the airliner would have exploded into a smoldering, fiery wreck; another charred trophy of Islamic fanaticism. Security measures failed; Janet Napolitano has confirmed nagging fears that she is hopelessly miscast as Homeland Security Director and President Obama, despite some stalwart posturing, blithely plays the role of the reluctant warrior in the war against terror.

The brazen attempt to bring down a jetliner by an affluent, educated, pampered 23-year old Islamic fanatic by concealing an incendiary device in his pants has raised collective eyebrows a few millimeters while giving rise to questions about how safe we are. After eight years without a single terrorist attack on the homeland, many believe a false sense of security has pervaded the national consciousness.

Several years ago, an attorney friend of mine proposed that television should play the video of the Twin Towers coming down every day to remind us of the catastrophic consequences of a relaxed attitude in a dangerous world. The point being that memories cease to be engaged with events the more they recede in time and repeated viewing of such atrocities would be a compelling antidote to what he perceived as a growing, if not prodigious indifference.

So the theory goes and because things on Christmas Day fell so egregiously through the cracks, our security gaps doubtlessly seem as wide as the Grand Canyon. Clearly there was a failure to revoke Farouk Abdulmutallab’s visa to the United States despite a warning to the U.S. Embassy from his own father that his son had ties to terror groups. This negligence was compounded when Abdulmutallab’s name was not added to a “no fly list” and then, finally, making it past airport security who, after all, are responsible for not letting little things (bombs for instance) get on airplanes.

This incident, appalling as it is, should not detract from our real successes in our efforts to shore up many of the security failings of 9-11. In fact, I believe, we are winning the war against Islamic terrorism. We may not be beating the enemy by miles, but we are winning by yards and feet. We are keeping that one vital step ahead. The enemy has failed to strike the homeland (although we were lucky this last time) since 9-11. We are, despite this recent mishap, safer (not as safe as we can or should be) but America today is safer from a terrorist attack than we were on that awful day over 8 years ago.

One benchmark of our success is a failed prediction. Some weeks after the September 11 attack, the director of the FBI publicly stated that waves of suicide bombers were heading to the United States and there was nothing we could do about it. But that hasn’t happened. Soft targets such as shopping malls, the transit system, apartment buildings and crowded city streets have been left unscathed (in the U.S.) and instead we have incompetent shoe bombers and crotch bombers trying to breach airline security that is much more intensive than security in general. The reason for this must be that the enemy cannot find enough sophisticated bombers in the United States and they are unable to import them over here without being thwarted by our vast, preemptive intelligence network.

More, however, must be done. To reiterate what has been said on numerous occasions: “We have to be right 100 percent of the time; the terrorists just once.” So are security precautions slackening off a bit? My guess is they are, or at least were before this attempted bombing. The closing of Guantanamo, limiting our intelligence agencies in their methods to obtain vital intelligence and trying terrorists in civilian courts is not the royal road to victory but a bumpy and dangerous ride filled with potholes and cliffhangers.

It is never easy for a free and open society to defend itself against enemies domestic and abroad. There are no guarantees but it seems clear, at least to this writer, that Congressman Peter King’s prescription for full body scanners and moving toward a more “Israel style security system” at our airports, broadening the “no fly list” and profiling to target our greatest potential threats can only serve to enhance our security. If we implicitly assume every passenger is an equal threat it becomes much harder to shift potential threats from Homeland Security’s enormous data bases to the more winnowed and selected databases of the Transportation Security Administration.

While I find “racial profiling” distasteful, since it presumes guilt rather than innocence, we should be frank enough to admit that critics often use the term as a pejorative for good detective work. It is, after all, imperative that our preemptive actions realistically reflect the threats facing us. I reject emphatically and entirely the notion that such intrusive tactics during these precarious times means a freefall into political tyranny. But I welcome, nonetheless, the outrage of the ACLU and other civil libertarian groups who criticize proponents (such as myself) for not only thinking our Constitution is made of elastic but also that such measures are un-American. I find it refreshing, if not purifying to our civic religion that these lamentations about loss of freedom and individual rights, upon which the foundation of our nation rests, are publicly voiced and vigorously challenged. That people can raise their voices, beat their chests and stamp their feet with impunity over such temporary actions by the highest levels of government is a reflection of the health of our democratic franchise and should reassure our discontented brethren that the fate of the Republic, they so demonstratively bewail, is not hopelessly shipwrecked upon the shoals of despotism.

One other thing has been weighing on me. While we should be worried about jihad, the growing possibility of another attack and the recruitment of terrorists including those inside the U.S., we should also be mindful of the more auspicious signs in this clash of cultures. There are times when Iran, a nesting ground for terrorists, seems on the brink of revolution. Only the iron fist of the mullahs and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are keeping the regime in power by killing and imprisoning protesters in broad daylight during bloody street battles. These dissidents may well be the future of Iran. It is estimated that nearly 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30 and one-third of the population are Internet users. Idealism belongs to the young and with anger spilling over from the stolen elections last June and oil prices steadily falling there is no telling what the future might bring.

With a nuclear Iran, however, it could bring some pretty nasty things. President Obama’s tepid support of these millions of Iranians struggling for freedom is disconcerting but one cannot be too hasty about providing clandestine support that might trigger a full-scale uprising like the one against the Shah of Iran in 1979. America’s heart should always be with those who fight for freedom but where we put our muscle must have timely and practical considerations. God bless our soldiers; their contributions in the war against terror are incalculable. But they can’t be everywhere and do everything.

Iran has already tested long-range missiles and, by all accounts, they are close to having nuclear weapons. The sands of time, unfortunately, have nearly run out on giving us options for Iran. Theodore Roosevelt coined the phrase “lunatic fringe” which happens to perfectly describe Iran’s leadership. If the regime finds itself seriously threatened, as at times it seems to be, it is not inconceivable that some of these mad mullahs, in a paroxysm of unsated bloodlust, might ignite the Armageddon they speak so fondly of by launching nukes against Israel.

So we have what we call a delicate balance, one that requires risk-based security approach here at home and a decisive, yet measured response abroad especially with regard to the happenings in Iran. Even as we ring in a new year and also a new decade, how we deal with the Mideast cauldron still looms as the world’s most monumental challenge.