With debt exploding, joblessness climbing, growth stagnating, and sharp tax increases looming, the economy has dominated the midterm campaign that finally ends on Tuesday. National-security concerns have flown under the radar.
For that, our much-maligned intelligence and law-enforcement agencies deserve credit. No, we can’t forget the massacre at Fort Hood: The failure to prevent it, despite neon warning signs, remains a monument to conscious avoidance (or, as I might put it, willful blindness). There have also been two near-misses: the attempted bombings of Times Square and an airliner over Detroit. In those cases, we were more lucky than good. But let’s not ignore the positive side of the ledger. We face enemies who are working day and night to kill Americans yet have largely failed to strike our homeland. Had they succeeded, terrorism would be atop the list of election issues rather than an afterthought.
It will not stay an afterthought forever. On Friday, two packages containing explosives were intercepted on cargo planes en route to the United States. President Obama announced that the targets were Chicago synagogues, and the source was al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — Osama bin Laden’s affiliate in Yemen. The alarming discovery capped a week in which the FBI disrupted a plot to attack Washington in a manner reminiscent of the atrocities in Bombay two years ago. Those were carried out by a Pakistani jihadist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba. In the Washington case, the prime suspect, Farooque Ahmed, is also a Pakistani native, and he himself is much more interesting than his plot.
That’s because the plot appears to have been steered by informants after the government learned that Ahmed and another man (elliptically described as “an associate” in an agent’s affidavit) were trying to join a terrorist organization. More worrisome is that Ahmed, like Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber and another Pakistani native, is a young, naturalized American. Like Shahzad, he is in his early 30s, became increasingly radicalized while living in the United States, and acquired citizenship — making it easier for him to plot against us while living among us.
Even if our security precautions were better conceived, even if our agencies consistently performed at their maximum effectiveness (and ask yourself if you do that, or if anyone does that), the odds against continuing to prevent every one of these attacks, or even to dodge them, are too long. The suspect pool is too extensive, it is too easy for those who mean us harm to get here and stay here, the motivating Islamist ideology is too widely disseminated, and the necessary materiel is too readily available. It is little wonder that intelligence services report a noticeable uptick in the chatter that signals an imminent attack.
Eventually, our safeguards will fail. If they do, it will be the other chatter — about Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, the rest of the 2012 intrigue, and even the economy — that recedes from our attention. The uncongenial fact that we remain the target of very determined enemies will push its way to the fore. The new Congress, whether it is under Republican control or merely stronger Republican influence, will need to give our security a good deal more attention than it has received during the campaign.
Lawmakers might start by thinking about why our agencies sometimes fail. Their task has never been more difficult. A single attack takes few operatives and little financing to carry out, but could cost thousands of lives. Yet we demand that our agents not only prevent it but conspicuously respect our ever-expanding privacy zones while doing so, often denying them a view of the dots we nonetheless insist they must connect.