Putting Safety First
This July 4, a shadow fell across our proud celebration of the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Make no mistake about it. The attempts by terrorists to randomly kill innocents in London and Scotland (frustrated only by a failed cellphone connection), and the murder of Spanish tourists in Yemen, seem to make Europeans the central targets outside Iraq, but the gold standard for the jihadists is to kill Americans on American soil. We remain the Great Satan. We have not had a catastrophic attack since 9/11 because our intelligence services have pre-empted plotters, but the length of al Qaeda's planning cycles in the past indicates that even a decade of peace is delusive. The jihadists are determined to attack the leader of the infidels, not just by a series of pinpricks but by killings on a grand scale.
Who are these people? In the attacks in London and Glasgow, the eight suspects are all young Muslims connected to the medical profession. In April, an al Qaeda man boasted to a senior British cleric stationed in Baghdad, "Those who cure you will kill you." What a perversion of their calling ("first, do no harm")! These are educated people living in the heart of western culture, but they are "at odds with the modern world." They enjoy the fruits of modernity, living under the protections of a civil society with rights they would deny to everyone else in their interpretations of sharia, or Islamic law.
The problem, as the 9/11 commission reported, is not just terrorism. It is the virulent ideology of radical Islam seeping from the Arab world almost everywhere. Its poisons need infect only a few. A handful can have a devastating effect with relatively easy access now to explosives and the technology on the Weband there are thousands of Muslims anxious to die for their cause without, even now, anything like enough condemnation from mainstream Muslim leaders.
Culture of death. The radicals' gift to civilizationthe suicide bombercan only be forestalled. Punishment is irrelevant. Nor is there any hope of a dawning of reason. A culture that celebrates death is impervious to reason from those who celebrate life. A culture that makes women conceal themselves and then obscenely promises virgins to the "martyrs" is maddened by its own hypocrisies. The jihadists have sacrificed to rote recitation all capacity for independent thought, indoctrinated by preachers in their mosques, in study groups, and in media of all kinds. Nothing can appease them.
We have to assume they will try to do their worstbut in fact our sense of urgency has been dissipated. The Department of Homeland Security is now just another bureaucracy, struggling for budget dollars and mission coherence. Only in America would New York City, the No. 1 terrorism target, receive dramatically less defensive funding on a per capita basis than states offering virtually nothing by way of targets. Safety first? Safety last!
Safety first means our traditions of free speech and free association have to be adjusted, carefully and with oversight, so we can carry out surveillance of groups likely to be influenced by al Qaeda's jihadist philosophy.
Safety first means overriding silly objections to biometric identification. Of the 50 million annual U.S. visitors, 70 percent do not even require visas. Safety first means revising the notion that someone who enters our countryterrorist or notis treated as a U.S. person. The barriers to surveillance are much higher than they would be if the visitor were regarded as a foreigner.
Safety first means removing the walls between foreign intelligence abroad and law enforcement at home. Little things count, as we learned after 9/11. The British cleric who heard the al Qaeda boast in April passed on a general alert but not the language suggesting medical people might be involvedand so none of the eight doctor suspects in Britain were under surveillance.
Safety first means the intelligence community itself must focus on dissemination of information. According to the director of national intelligence, the community collects more than a billion pieces of information every day. Given that no single agency can survey all of this, the entire intelligence community must work together in new ways, share information, and exchange viewpoints. Safety first means a readiness to indemnify against lawsuits those communication and financial systemsmostly privatethat could pass along intelligence.
This is a critical time for leadership the American people can trust, leadership that will not conceal what can be explained (and justified), leadership that will hold our liberties sacred but understand that our freedoms, enduring through civil turmoil, hardship, and war, will be at risk as never before if the American people conclude, in the wake of another catastrophe, that their safety has come second to bureaucratic inertia, political expediency, and partisanship.
This story appears in the July 16, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.