I agree with Becker's analysis, but I draw a few additional lessons from the recent foiled plot to bring down airliners with liquid bombs, and let me explain them.
The first lesson is the shrewdness of al Qaeda and its affiliates in continuing to focus their destructive efforts on civil aviation. Death in a plane crash is one of the "dreaded" forms of death that psychologists remind us arouse far more fear than forms of death that are much more probable; this explains the extraordinary safety of air travel compared to gas heaters, which kill with a much higher probability. The concern with air safety, coupled with the fact that protection against terrorist attacks on aviation can be strengthened, though only at great cost in inconvenience to travelers, makes the recently foiled plot a merely partial failure for the terrorists. The revelation of the plot will significantly increase the costs of air travel--costs that are no less real or substantial for being largely nonpecuniary (fear, and loss of time--which, ironically, will result in some substitution of less safe forms of travel, namely automobile travel).
The plot has also revealed the importance of counterterrorist intelligence. A defense against terrorists as against other enemies of the nation must be multilayered to have a reasonable chance of being effective. One of the outer defenses is intelligence, designed to detect plots in advance so that they can be thwarted. One of the inner defenses is preventing an attack at the last minute, as by airport security screening for weapons. The inner defense would have failed in the recent episode because the equipment for scanning hand luggage does not detect liquid explosives. The outer defense succeeded. This is fortunate because airport security remains in disarray. The liquid-bomb threat had been known since a similar al Qaeda plot was foiled in 1995, but virtually nothing had been done to counter it. This is a failure of our Department of Homeland Security but also of the corresponding agencies in other countries, such as Britain's Home Office. If intelligence had failed, the attack would have succeeded.
Intelligence succeeded in thwarting the attack in part because of the work of MI5, England's domestic intelligence agency. The United States does not have a counterpart to MI5. That seems to me a very serious gap in our defenses. I have criticized it in a series of recent writings, including my book Uncertain Shield: The U.S. Intelligence System in the Throes of Reform, ch. 4 (Hoover Institution and Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005). Perhaps now these criticisms will receive a more sympathetic hearing.
Primary responsibility for national-security intelligence has been confided to the FBI, a criminal-investigation agency oriented toward arrest and prosecution rather than toward patient gathering of intelligence with a view toward understanding and penetrating a terrorist network. The title of an article on the front page of today‚Äôs New York Times says it all: ‚ÄúTracing Terror Plots, British Watch, Then Pounce: Experts See Different Tactics in U.S., Which Moves in Quickly.‚Äù The Bureau's tendency, consistent with its culture of arrest and prosecution, is to continue an investigation into a terrorist plot only for as long a time as is required to obtain sufficient evidence to arrest and prosecute a respectable number of plotters. Under this approach, the small fry are easily caught but any big shots who might have associated with them quickly scatter. The arrests and prosecutions warn terrorists concerning the methods of the FBI.
Bureaucratic risk aversion also plays a part; prompt arrests assure that members of the group won't escape the FBI's grasp and commit terrorist attacks. But without some risk taking, the prospect of defeating terrorism is slight.
MI5, in contrast to the FBI (and to Scotland Yard's Special Branch, with which MI5 works), has no arrest powers and no responsibilities for criminal investigation, and it has none of the institutional hangups that go with such responsibilities. Had the British authorities proceeded in the same manner in which the FBI would have been likely to proceed, rather than continuing their investigation until almost the last minute and as a result being able to roll up (with Pakistan's help) more than 40 plotters, most of the plotters might still be at large and the exact nature of and danger posed by the plot might not have been discovered.
The Times article says that the British could wait until the last minute because they have more legal scope for detaining suspects than we do. I don't think this is correct, but if it is, it is one more sign that we still do not take the threat of terrorism seriously enough to reexamine a commitment to civil liberties formed in a different and safer era.
Which brings me finally to a silver lining. It is not the fact that the plot was foiled; it was, as I said at the outset, merely a partial failure. The silver lining is that this close call may shake us out of some of our complacency. Because we have not been attacked since 2001, we are (or were until last week) beginning to feel safe. We were ostriches. An article in the current Atlantic Monthly by the usually astute journalist James Fallows proclaims victory over al Qaeda. Fallows argues that by depriving bin Laden of his Afghanistan sanctuary we defeated al Qaeda, and the only danger now is that we will overreact to a diminished terrorist threat. Bin Laden was indeed deprived of his Afghanistan sanctuary, but he promptly found another one, in Pakistan. Though the plotters of the liquid-bomb attack are British citizens, the plot in its scope and objective has al Qaeda written all over it. Al Qaeda is the high-end terrorist group. It is not content with bombing merely a subway or a train. Its hallmark is the spectacular attack, and the recent airliner plot had it succeeded would have rivaled the 9/11 attack in its impact.
Our ostrich brgade may retreat to the claim that "our" Muslims, unlike the British and Canadian Muslims, are fully integrated into American society and so pose no threat. That is false. The percentage of American Muslims who are potential terrorists is undoubtedly smaller than the corresponding percentages in either Britain or Canada. But as there are many more American Muslims than there are British or Canadian ones, and as (we now know) British (and presumably Canadian) Muslim extremists want to attack us and not just their own host nations, we cannot afford to assume that we are safe. Perhaps we shall no longer indulge that dangerous assumption.