EVER SINCE the 9/11 attacks jolted us into the new era of terror on our shores, the fear of "another Sept. 11" has been a preeminent fear for many people. The latest terror alert sparked by the report of a plot by British radical Muslims to bomb US-bound airliners by using liquid explosives has been another jolt for the complacent.
Actually, at present, we know little about how imminent or how great the danger was, and many observers argue convincingly that the massive response was an overreaction. But there is no doubt that the danger of another terror attack is very real, and we still face the same question we did on Sept. 12 five years ago: How do we protect ourselves without handing terrorists the victory of curtailing our freedoms and turning us into a people governed by fear?
Last week, airports were snarled by the new security measures, with thousands of passengers in the United States and especially in London stranded, forced to wait in line for hours to undergo stringent searches, and made to throw away often-expensive liquid items such as wine and perfume from their carry-on luggage. At London's Heathrow Airport, all carry-on items except for a few essentials in clear plastic bags were prohibited for a while. Some irate passengers criticized the measures as excessive; others argued that it's far better to be inconvenienced than to get blown up.
There is, of course, no constitutional right to carry-on luggage, and five hours in the air with no compact disc player is not the kind of torture that international law prohibits. But the questions are: Where do protective measures stop, and what kind of measures could be deemed necessary next?
Some important questions have been raised about the level of threat posed by the terror plot in this case by, among others, journalist and blogger Andrew Sullivan, a strong supporter of the war on terror. New reports in the British press suggest that the suspected plotters were monitored by British intelligence for months. One of them was apparently planning a dry run of the operation.
The rest had not as yet bought airline tickets, and some did not even have passports. Some of the information that prompted the arrests and the security alert came from Pakistani intelligence and was probably extracted by torture. This is now being used by some pundits on the right, such as Karol Sheinin guest-blogging for Michelle Malkin, to argue that torture is justifiable when it yields life saving results. But Sullivan correctly notes that torture, moral aspects aside, is notorious for producing bad information. If much of the evidence does not hold up, that will do major damage to the British and US ability to prosecute the war on terror.
While somewhat skeptical about the danger in this case, Sullivan is convinced that another major terror attack is likely. It may speak to the limits of our imagination that we are focused mainly on the threat of terror in the skies. An attack on the subways, on the crowded streets of a major city, or in a suburban shopping mall could have equally devastating results -- particularly if chemical or biological weapons were used. What happens if that's the type of attack we suffer next? Are we going to accept searches, checkpoints, and explosives detectors as a way of life in all public places the way most now accept them at airports?
Some libertarians say that we should just get over our fear of terrorism, pointing out that even the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of 9/11 took far fewer lives than highway accidents and ordinary crimes do every year. But this kind of argument completely ignores human psychology. Not only is mass terrorism the result of someone deliberately targeting us, but its casualties are immediate and large-scale rather than dispersed in time and distance, and its danger is so unpredictable that there is virtually nothing any individual can do to minimize it. If disasters with casualties numbering in the thousands were caused by faulty construction of roads, bridges, or airplanes, we surely wouldn't accept them as facts of life in a functional society. Surely, terrorism is no more acceptable.
Altering our foreign policy so as to avoid angering potential terrorists, as some suggest, is not a good prescription, either. It would make us easy marks for international blackmail.
It looks like, for the foreseeable future, we will be trying to find some acceptable balance that can protect lives without destroying our way of life.