Paul Greenberg

It was just as frightening, and in its own way even more infuriating, than the almost successful attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 as it approached Detroit on Christmas Day. I'm talking about the wholly unacceptable comment/excuse offered by this country's secretary of supposed Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano: "I think the important thing to recognize here is that once this incident occurred, everything happened as it should have."

Wh-a-a-t? No, ma'am, with all due respect, which is little or none after so flagrant a violation of national security, or rather series of flagrant violations, the important thing to recognize here is that "this incident," as you so discreetly put it, should never have been allowed to occur in the first place.

At one point, the secretary was claiming "the system worked," a phrase sure to follow her wherever she goes. Dots went unconnected all over the world. And for that, Ms. Napolitano bears responsibility -- or certainly should as secretary of Homeland Security. A more honorable official would have offered not excuses but her resignation.

Even the lady's reference to a murderous attack as "this incident" is a sad reminder that she doesn't even have the vocabulary to describe this threat, let alone deal with it effectively.

Like her boss in the White House, Ms. Napolitano can't bring herself to say simple phrases like Terrorist Attack, the War on Terror, and certainly not Enemy Combatant. The simple truth must never be spoken. It would be undiplomatic.

But without the right words, this administration isn't likely to adopt the right policies to combat terror. Language is thought, and shapes actions. It would be a big step up if the commander-in-chief set the example by saying outright that we're at war, not in a lawsuit. Oh, if only Barack Obama had room on his enemies' list for somebody besides Fox News.

Instead, our president and commander-in-chief employs every conceivable slip-slide euphemism for the enemy -- "violent extremists," for example -- to avoid calling Islamic terrorists Islamic terrorists. Is he fighting a war or just being politically correct?

Barack Obama is supposed to be an articulate leader, yet he was reduced to saying everything but the right thing when he spoke to the nation about this terrorist attack on the United States -- by one count, the most recent of 28 since September 11, 2001. We are threatened by an enemy out to hijack not just airliners but one of the world's great religions, yet the president's words grow hazy whenever he refers to those out to kill as many of us as they can. As if he didn't dare speak some home truths.

The system worked? Everything happened as it should have? Let us count the ways in which nothing happened as it should have, though at this point the list of ways in which the system failed is still incomplete:

The highly suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallah should never have been on that plane, let alone with enough explosives to blow a hole in its side, kill as many people, and do as much damage to the United States of America as the Shoe Bomber had hoped to do back in 2001.

This suspect was in a database of "known or suspected terrorists," yet he seems to have had no difficulty keeping his American visa, buying his ticket with cash, boarding a flight in Nigeria to change planes in Amsterdam, and begin his final approach.

A warning from the suspect's own father, a prominent Nigerian banker, about his son's "radicalization and associations" wasn't enough to prevent the attack. Though the father had alerted not just Nigerian authorities in Lagos but the U.S. Embassy there. The American embassy seems to have done its part (who says the State Department is always at fault?) by passing on the warning to every official agency it could think of: all American diplomatic missions worldwide, State Department headquarters in Washington, the National Counter-Terrorism Center....

The advance notice might as well have been in all the papers. And yet Janet Napolitano and sleepy company, including the counter-terrorism center, failed counter terrorism.

If a father's warning about his son's radical propensities wasn't sufficient to get our security people to act, what would have been? Would the suspect have had to board the plane with a big sign on his back proclaiming I Am a Terrorist?

The explosive the suspect carried (PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate) might have been detected by bomb-sniffing dogs. Or a body search. Or by new technology that blows bits of dust off passengers and examines them. Or with full body-imaging. Or just detailed questioning. The way El Al, the Israeli airline, has maintained its reputation as the safest in the world. No doubt all these possibilities will now be explored by congressional investigators, but only after an airliner full of people was almost blown out of the sky.

For now, the standard operating procedure for airline security in this country remains: Ignore the obvious. Any system that treats the little old lady from Peoria the same as a Nigerian Muslim who bought his one-way ticket with cash -- after his father tried to warn the authorities about the threat he represented -- has left common sense far behind. But it's the rule: One must never, never profile the enemy. We might come to know who they are.






Asleep on the Terrorist Watch: Northwest Flight 253 | Paul Greenberg