WASHINGTON -- The word "vigilance" is sometimes mocked as reactionary and jingoistic. As in: "We must be vigilant to protect the homeland during this duck-and-cover drill against communists under every bed because loose lips sink ships."
But the failures in the war on terror during the last few months have been failures of vigilance. After warnings to American officials from his father, a radicalized Nigerian with ties to Yemen -- holding a one-way ticket and no luggage -- is allowed on a plane headed to Detroit. A man in Afghan military fatigues -- covering a bomb vest -- enters a CIA base in Afghanistan for an intelligence debriefing, without being screened. An Army psychologist -- with a history of making provocative jihadist arguments and known to classmates as a "ticking time bomb" -- is assigned to Afghanistan and reports for processing at Fort Hood.
In all these cases -- whether in the State Department, the CIA or the U.S. Army -- some internal guard was lowered. Following the Christmas attack, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano concluded, "One of the things that may come out of this awful day is perhaps a renewed sense of urgency."
Her statement is a confession that vigilance has faded over time. Some of this is a natural process -- a human desire for normalcy, the tendency of civilized people to repress unpleasant realities. Vigilance is like a knife that dulls when it is not used.
Which is precisely why vigilance requires leadership. Urgency is either sharpened by rhetoric and expectation -- or it is sharpened by tragedy.
A president can't be held responsible for every mistake at every level of government. But every level of government takes its cues from the president and his main advisers. And it is difficult to argue that the Obama administration has even attempted to create an atmosphere of urgency in the war on terror. The listless, coldblooded and clueless response of the Hawaii White House to the Christmas Day attack was only the most recent indication. Over the last year, nearly every rhetorical signal from the administration -- from the use of war-on-terror euphemisms such as "overseas contingency operations" and "man-caused disasters" to its preference for immediately categorizing terrorism as the work of an "isolated extremist" -- has been designed to convey a return to normalcy, a contrast to the supposed fear-mongering of the past.