State

Fighting amongst ourselves gives terrorists another win

Now might be a good time to remind everyone that terrorists don't literally have to hit their mark to make a mark.

Sure, the young Nigerian failed to blow up that Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. His mission foundered on his own bumbling and the quick action of crew and passengers in tamping the flames.

But considered from another perspective, he hit the bulls-eye. Killing people, by whatever means, is just the terrorist's method. The goal is to disrupt, to strike fear, to sew discord among the enemy. And listen to us now, so willing to oblige.

Start with the opposition party's bleating for Janet Napolitano's head. True, the secretary of Homeland Security made a mistake with her initial attempt to explain that some of our security systems had worked in thwarting the attack. Whatever she was trying to say, it sounded like bureaucratic complacency. But is seeing Napolitano's head roll going to magically realign national security systems. Without ascertaining specific culpability for the underwear bombing, such knee-jerk reaction likely will do more to disrupt, not fix, these systems.

Then there's Dick Cheney, stirring the pot by claiming that the president is simply "pretending" to be waging a war on terrorism.

As if torrents of macho-talk will help us figure out how better to synthesize the massive amounts of intelligence collected daily into red-light alerts bright enough for any TSA employee with a badge to recognize.

And let's not forget Newt Gingrich, who no doubt gave voice to the thoughts of senseless legions by calling for an end to political correctness and a full embrace of racial, ethnic and religious profiling.

And you can bet political consultants of all stripes are saving sound bites to use in attack ads in the midterm elections next year, should some candidate need to be painted as "soft on terror."

"We need a new policy of systematically going after terrorists that involves explicit profiling and explicit discrimination for behavior," Gingrich wrote in a Twitter posting. "It is time to go to profiling of dangerous people."

Let's pause and consider what the real failure was on Flight 253. Several facts about the Nigerian should have been but were not recognized and linked: his ties to Yemen extremists, his own father's warnings of radicalism, his one-way ticket paid in cash, his lack of luggage -- all factors much more relevant than the mere facts that he is foreign and Muslim.

Why were these facts not recognized and acted upon? Once reason may be that our intelligence agencies have too much information to deal with. The nation's

16 spy agencies are filled with career government employees, many highly specialized in their fields. Every day, the National Security Agency collects enough intelligence to fill the Library of Congress four times over, (according to Matthew M. Aid, an intelligence historian and author of "The Secret Sentry," a book about the NSA.

One watch list contains 550,000 names, while another lists 14,000 people who merit extra screening at airports. Then there is the no-fly list of 4,000. Meshing that information together and fashioning it into usable instructions for the foot soldiers of the TSA and other agencies is a mammoth undertaking. We obviously aren't doing a flawless job. Yet some critics seem to think disseminating this information is as easy as posting pictures of your cat on Facebook.

The greatest challenge will be shifting the U.S. mindset. We are at risk. But, ironically, that tough bluster about being "at war" applies less and less. No matter how well prepared our systems, terrorists will shift tactics and humans will make mistakes. The "human and systemic failures" the president described will always be with us.

Meanwhile, fighting among ourselves will do little to bring us toward accepting that living with the threat of terrorism means maintaining alertness without panic.

THE KANSAS CITY STAR

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