The Right Way to Respond to the Christmas Terrorist Attack

This isn't about bathroom breaks and blankets—the government needs to keep track of the real threat.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

This is one of the busiest travel weeks of the year, and yet the Obama administration's response to the Christmas Day attack on Northwest Flight 253 has been disappointing at best. We've seen DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano say on CNN on Sunday, "The system worked," and that the "whole process went very smoothly." She also said that the attack was not likely to be part of a wider terror plot. Neither statement passed the laugh test: This afternoon al Qaeda took responsibility for the attack, and the press has been full of stories about the multiple points within the security system that allowed a known al Qaeda associate with a valid visa to buy a one-way ticket with cash, board a plane to the United States with highly explosive liquids strapped to his body, and try to detonate the bomb in the air over a major American city.

The fact that no one was killed doesn't negate the fact that this was a terrorist attack, as some in the press are trying to do by using words like "attempted" and "unsuccessful." The only thing that saved those people's lives was that the bomb briefly malfunctioned, and the only person who prevented mayhem was a fellow passenger who jumped on the bomber—not Napolitano, not TSA screeners, not a sky marshal, not even a flight attendant.

"Security failed," said Doron Bergerbest-Eilon, Israel's senior-ranking counterterrorism officer from 1997 to 2000 and a former national regulator for aviation security, in the Washington Post. "The system repeatedly fails to prevent attacks and protect passengers when challenged," he said, adding that, in the minds of security experts, "for all intents and purposes, Northwest Flight 253 exploded in midair."

So the response so far has been to ban passengers from getting out of their seats in the final hour of flights (the bomber went to the bathroom for 20 minutes an hour before landing) and no blankets or pillows allowed in passengers' laps (he mixed the chemicals under a blanket). If he had gone to the bathroom two hours beforehand, would we have that rule now too? Or had his tray table down? Or ordered a snack? And would the passenger who jumped on him have been allowed out of his seat?

Wouldn't it be smarter to do more pat-downs and utilize the full-body scanning technology that already exists, according to the Post, and allow security to look below even banning blankets and bathroom breaks? I'm happy to sacrifice a few civil liberties in exchange for a system that doesn't let dangerous explosives on board in the first place.

But really the bigger question here is this: Are we going to react to terrorists by retroactively outlawing their methodology—by checking shoes, for example, in response to the 2001 shoe bomber, or by taking away more than three ounces of liquids in response to the 2006 plot to blow up 10 airliners using liquid explosives—or are we going to start proactively looking at their mindset and their motivations and deny them entry to the United States? There are various versions of this politically incorrect argument on the blogosphere today, many of which I agree with, but David Brooks put it best on This Week:

"It's an ideological thing. This guy [Farouk Abdul Mutallab], as I said, fit the classic profile. He's rich. He's trapped between two worlds, the traditional world of his imagined past and the modern world of being a mechanical engineer. And this is just like the 9/11 guys, sort of like the Fort Hood guy. And so they're trapped between these two worlds, and they imagine some pure Islamic ideology of the past which they're going to act out by killing people. And it's the ideology that matters, and it can happen to somebody living in London or Hamburg or anywhere else around the world, and then they find Yemen."

This isn't about taking away fingernail clippers and juice boxes. This is about keeping track of people who have an ideology of murderous hate and keeping them away from our public transportation, our infrastructure, and our families. The president announced this afternoon he'd ordered a review of the no-fly list. Air travel is not a right, it's a privilege. So is entering the United States. The sooner the administration decides to expand—and enforce—that list, the safer we will be.