Feature

The Underwear Bomber: What went wrong?

A suicide bomber's planned attack over the skies of Detroit was narrowly averted, and questions still loom about intelligence gathered but not shared.

“The more I think about the Christmas all-but-bombing,” said Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post, “the angrier I get.” Long before he boarded a flight to Detroit with high explosives sewn into his underwear, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s own father had alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son had become an Islamic radical worth watching. Authorities in Britain later revoked Abdulmutallab’s visa because a university course he claimed to be taking turned out not to exist. If that weren’t enough to get Abdulmutallab put on the “no-fly” list, you’d think someone might have noticed that, like the 9/11 hijackers, he paid cash for his ticket ($2,831 for the trip from Nigeria to Amsterdam to Detroit), and checked in without a single piece of luggage. Abdulmutallab, in short, did everything to alert authorities to his murderous intentions but “wear a sign saying, ‘You might want to check my underwear.’” The Sept. 11 attacks were supposed to be our “wake-up call,” said Jeff Jacoby in The Boston Globe. But nine years later, our country has clearly lapsed back into somnolence. Only the quick-thinking passengers who tackled Abdulmutallab, and his own incompetence, spared us from remembering this Christmas as the day a flaming jetliner full of passengers disintegrated over Detroit.

“Some of this is President Obama’s fault,” said Mona Charen in National Review Online. Since he took office in January and issued an edict banning the phrase “war on terror,” our “overgrand” president has been in deep, delusional denial about the extent of the terrorist threat. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano proved that with her much ridiculed, quickly retracted comment that because Abdulmutallab’s bomb didn’t go off, “the system worked.” It’s not just that Obama and his team are incompetent, said Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post. They don’t understand that we’re at war with very dangerous fanatics. Incredibly, Obama first described Abdulmutallab as “an isolated extremist” who “allegedly” tried to bring down Flight 253—and this is about more than semantics. Instead of being interrogated at Guantánamo to find out “who trained, instructed, armed, and sent him,” Abdulmutallab is now relaxing in a U.S. jail behind a phalanx of lawyers and the presumption of innocence, preparing for the undeserved luxury of a civilian trial.

A civilian trial was good enough for Richard Reid, wasn’t it? said Clarence Page in the Chicago Tribune. Reid, you might remember, was the equally hapless jihadist who tried to set off a bomb in his shoes on a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001. The Bush administration tried and convicted Reid as a civilian—without a peep of protest from those currently outraged at Obama’s limp-wristed, “law-enforcement approach” to terrorism. By the logic of the Right, said Steve Benen in Washingtonmonthly.com, Reid’s failed shoe bombing—and the life sentence he’s now serving in federal prison—proved that George Bush and Dick Cheney were incompetent, Muslim-appeasing pacifists. “That’s obviously insane,” but when your only goal is to undermine and defeat the current president, insane partisanship and hypocrisy are nothing to be ashamed of.

Partisanship aside, everyone knows what the real problem is, said Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times. The CIA, FBI, State Department, and other U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies are doing a decent job of gathering intelligence on terrorist activities, but the sharing of intelligence is still hampered by bureaucracy, inter-agency turf wars, and a simple inability “to connect the dots.” The CIA had been told that Abdulmutallab had fallen in with Islamic radicals. The British had revoked his visa. And yet his name never was put on the “no-fly” list. In “the nation that invented the supercomputer and the database,” this is a travesty.

Certainly, our systems can be improved, said David Brooks in The New York Times, but they won’t ever be perfect. The most troubling aspect of this debate is the childish assumption, on both the Left and the Right, that government has the duty and the ability to protect us from every danger. It can’t, and it won’t. Every now and then, one of these suicidal maniacs is going to slip through the cracks in any system we set up and make it onto a plane. When he does, rather than lose ourselves in “rabid denunciation and cynicism,” let’s follow the lead of the brave passengers who tackled Reid and Abdulmutallab, and show “a little resiliency.” In the long struggle against terrorism, “bad things will happen, and we don’t have to lose our heads every time they do.”

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