When governments fail to protect their people

When governments fail to protect their people

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

The Muslim Nigerian terrorist who tried to detonate an explosive aboard a Detroit-bound airliner almost converted Christmas day and the holiday season into a time of tragedy and suffering for Americans. While the facts are still emerging, the world again witnessed insane plans by ingenious, demented minds to force those in the West to accept the legitimacy of radical Islam.

Christmas Eve saw the attack against the Pope in St. Peter’s Basilica. Unbelievably, the same woman tried to attack him last year. While papal infallibility — in this case survival as God wills it — remains part of Church doctrine, the apparent lack of physical security for the pontiff before huge throngs remains unimaginable.

Not comparable in effect but equally disconcerting was the recent episode of the White House party crashers, Tareq and Michaele Salahi. This escapade underscored the failure of even the highly trained U.S. Secret Service to address potential threats. (Imagine had a crasher tried to smuggle in anthrax powder, which would have evaded White House security monitors.)

Adding astonishment and disturbance was Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s initial reaction to the airplane incident. “The system worked,” she said, before amending her remarks under a storm of criticism.

While the Transportation Security Administration has improved its operations since it was created in the wake of 9/11, it is still subject to ridicule and challenges from all political perspectives. Journalists and activists continue to embarrass TSA by exposing security breaches. TSA remains a dramatic frustration for passengers, without making much of the flying public feel more secure.

The Detroit incident will undoubtedly lead to new technological fixes at airports. And yet theaters, concert halls, or sporting events, where the expense or inconvenience of high-tech screening is all but insurmountable, will remain vulnerable. One wonders why terrorists continue to target airplanes, or when they will begin to employ terrorists who are home-based and/or U.S. citizens.

Beneath all these recent occurrences are serious tensions between security and civil liberties. Can a liberal democracy prevent terrorism without institutionalizing profiling, stereotyping, invasive body scans, or retina scans? Radicals prepared to give their lives for a cause will never be deterred, while the loss of privacy and individual rights may never prevent suicide bombers.

America’s 300 million citizens are not ready to accept the security measures that seven million Israelis have incorporated into their daily lives. One major U.S. airport sees more passengers than Ben-Gurion airport, Israel’s only international airport. Americans are not ready to arrive three hours before departures, undergo personal interviews, pay higher ticket prices for specially secured aircraft, and endure repeated challenges and questioning — all signatures of the “Israeli way.” On the other hand, Americans need to believe that the government will no longer tolerate inefficiency, incompetence, or inattention by those charged with keeping us safe.

The Detroit incident demonstrated that the intelligence and anti-terrorist community continues to be failing in its mission. The definition, review, scrutiny, and surveillance of potential terrorist threats is still mired in a bureaucratic morass. An efficient, proactive anti-terrorist operation should have prevented the alleged Detroit bomber from flying into the U.S.

Terrorist threats are clearly here to stay. While we can urge the public to continue “business as usual,” there is a need for the government to convince the public that it has instituted the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, and is prepared, if necessary, to implement steps to protect the public even if they present major civil liberty challenges.

There is also a need to recognize fanatical religious groups and terrorist cells for the threat they represent to the American way of life.

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