by Austin Bay
December 21, 2010
"Just how real is the holiday terrorist threat?"
The question isn't rhetorical, nor is it an arid
theoretical. Since Thanksgiving, it's been the query of the season, reflecting
the uneasy spirit of our times. I've had it popped on me at parties, in the
gym, on the phone and by my wife.
Even though I'd rather drink party punch and talk about
football, each unique questioner deserves a thoughtful answer. At some sincere
level, the person is asking for a thoughtful opinion regarding the likelihood
of life during a season proclaiming joy to the world weighed against the
possibility of death at the hands of mass murderers driven by a malignant
So I've tried to provide the most honest answer I can,
knowing full well the question always begs background questions involving trust
Stipulating that each conversation has been unique, the
trust issue boils down to, "Do you trust the U.S. government to tell you
the essential truth?" Trust also figures in the second troublesome issue,
which I'll frame as, "Do you believe U.S. security agencies competently
address the threat of terrorism?"
Trust in government veracity varies and is expressed as a
matter of degrees. I've been surprised, but personal political leanings don't
seem to be the decisive factor. Everyone seems to have noticed that despite the
rhetoric, President Obama's counter-terror policies do not differ significantly
from those of the Bush administration. When asked if I think Obama is telling
us the truth about the threat, my answer is yes -- and so was President Bush.
The competence discussion inevitably damns the
Transportation Safety Administration, which is regarded as at best a nuisance
and at worst an obscene example of politically correct jackboot government.
As for the intelligence agencies' performance, people hope
they do their job. When asked, I offer my opinion: They're good, but they can't
tell you how good they are, because then the bad guys know and then our spies
die. The U.S. military consistently receives the highest marks.
Now that we've covered suspicions and cynicism, the
conversation returns to the initial question. Holiday travel spurs it, I say,
but you're asking me to judge the constant threat posed by militant Islamist
terrorists. That is asking me what I know about our enemy.
I know that al-Qaida hates you because in 1492 the Spaniards
completed the Reconquista and in 1924 Turkey's Kemal Ataturk ended the
caliphate. I know Osama bin Laden declared war on America in 1998, and in 2001
he proved he meant it.
What an enemy says matters -- what he does matters even
more. What he does matters more than the fact you didn't ask for war or don't
like TSA examining your pants.
What does this enemy do? He tries to kill you. Have we
damaged al-Qaida? Yes. Predator strikes have ripped al-Qaida and Taliban
leadership in Afghanistan. It'll take the American left 30 years to admit it,
but Iraq has been a huge defeat for al-Qaida.
Is it over? No. We're engaged in a struggle for the terms of
modernity, which means there is a cultural war beyond the shooting war. If it
sounds daunting, it is -- and it's going to be too real for many New Years to
In the last 10 days, I've added this coda. We had a child
fly home for Christmas, and she flew in from overseas. As I followed her
flight's progress on the Internet -- up to the minute digital comfort -- I
tried not to think about last year's Christmas terror attack on a Detroit-bound
airliner. The thought, however, wouldn't leave my mind.
Where I saw the computer icon of a civilian jumbo jet safely
passing over Nova Scotia, an Al-Qaida emir, on his laptop in Yemen or Pakistan,
saw a ballistic missile heading for Dallas.
Both views of that icon have a basis in physical fact. In
the physical world, they clash in an either-or struggle of life or death. During
her flight, my daughter was on a battlefield, not one of her choosing or mine.
I prayed that intelligence agencies and security officers had cleared it of the