Back on alert

August 11, 2006

There have been a few too many overblown alarms in the past several years, but the apparent plot to blow up multiple planes on their way from the United Kingdom to the United States seems to have been a genuine threat. The dramatic reaction by security officials was probably prudent - though if President Bush was being briefed on the British investigation as long ago as Sunday, it's not quite clear why a bottle of hair gel was so much more dangerous yesterday than it was on Tuesday or Wednesday. But erring on the side of caution is certainly understandable.

Three things came into focus yesterday:

The best public appearances were by officials who were clear, informative, unemotional and nonrhetorical. Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, managed his morning news conference admirably. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and, to a lesser extent, President Bush tried to sound notes of high passion and purple purpose, and their tone was all wrong. In some ways, an emotional response is part of what terrorists are hoping to provoke. Levelheadedness is better.

Its Afghan camps destroyed, al-Qaida no longer exists as an actual body of terrorists-in-training. An al-Qaida agent may have had a role in organizing the plotters who were arrested in Britain yesterday. But all 24 suspects were reportedly British-born Muslims.

To find the heart of Muslim alienation and the impulse toward violence against the West, the place to look is not the Middle East but Europe. Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon may inspire resentment, but it is anger at their own societies that underlies the hostility among European Muslims. One-third of British Muslims between the ages of 18 and 24 say they would prefer to live under Sharia law than British law, a poll found. Almost the same number say the bombings in London a year ago were justified. Europe has large, unassimilated and unhappy Muslim communities; as it happens, those within them who lash out often choose American targets.

Televised images of packed airports made plenty of people watching glad they weren't flying yesterday. It wasn't the fear of being blown up; it was the fear of being stuck in endless, static, sweltering lines with no idea what's going on. Flying has become ever more of a tribulation. This is just one more reason why America needs a modern and effective passenger rail system.

In the days to come, much more is sure to come out about both the plot and the plotters. The important thing will be not to draw the wrong lessons from whatever is learned; the impulse, say, to brand all young Muslims with British accents as criminals, or all civil liberties protections as outmoded, or all shampoo bottles as dangerous, will be hard for some to resist. The real goal should be to devise ways to make intelligent distinctions - and then act on them.

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