by Austin Bay
December 21, 2010
"Just how real is the holiday terrorist threat?"
The question isn't rhetorical, nor is it an aridtheoretical. Since Thanksgiving, it's been the query of the season, reflectingthe uneasy spirit of our times. I've had it popped on me at parties, in thegym, on the phone and by my wife.
Even though I'd rather drink party punch and talk aboutfootball, each unique questioner deserves a thoughtful answer. At some sincerelevel, the person is asking for a thoughtful opinion regarding the likelihoodof life during a season proclaiming joy to the world weighed against thepossibility of death at the hands of mass murderers driven by a malignantreligious zealotry.
So I've tried to provide the most honest answer I can,knowing full well the question always begs background questions involving trustand competence.
Stipulating that each conversation has been unique, thetrust issue boils down to, "Do you trust the U.S. government to tell youthe essential truth?" Trust also figures in the second troublesome issue,which I'll frame as, "Do you believe U.S. security agencies competentlyaddress the threat of terrorism?"
Trust in government veracity varies and is expressed as amatter of degrees. I've been surprised, but personal political leanings don'tseem to be the decisive factor. Everyone seems to have noticed that despite therhetoric, President Obama's counter-terror policies do not differ significantlyfrom those of the Bush administration. When asked if I think Obama is tellingus the truth about the threat, my answer is yes -- and so was President Bush.
The competence discussion inevitably damns theTransportation Safety Administration, which is regarded as at best a nuisanceand at worst an obscene example of politically correct jackboot government.
As for the intelligence agencies' performance, people hopethey do their job. When asked, I offer my opinion: They're good, but they can'ttell you how good they are, because then the bad guys know and then our spiesdie. The U.S. military consistently receives the highest marks.
Now that we've covered suspicions and cynicism, theconversation returns to the initial question. Holiday travel spurs it, I say,but you're asking me to judge the constant threat posed by militant Islamistterrorists. That is asking me what I know about our enemy.
I know that al-Qaida hates you because in 1492 the Spaniardscompleted the Reconquista and in 1924 Turkey's Kemal Ataturk ended thecaliphate. I know Osama bin Laden declared war on America in 1998, and in 2001he proved he meant it.
What an enemy says matters -- what he does matters evenmore. What he does matters more than the fact you didn't ask for war or don'tlike TSA examining your pants.
What does this enemy do? He tries to kill you. Have wedamaged al-Qaida? Yes. Predator strikes have ripped al-Qaida and Talibanleadership 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 ofmodernity, which means there is a cultural war beyond the shooting war. If itsounds daunting, it is -- and it's going to be too real for many New Years tocome.
In the last 10 days, I've added this coda. We had a childfly home for Christmas, and she flew in from overseas. As I followed herflight's progress on the Internet -- up to the minute digital comfort -- Itried not to think about last year's Christmas terror attack on a Detroit-boundairliner. The thought, however, wouldn't leave my mind.
Where I saw the computer icon of a civilian jumbo jet safelypassing 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. Inthe physical world, they clash in an either-or struggle of life or death. Duringher 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 theenemy.