Paul Greenberg

A question: Do you think that style-setter of American journalism - The New York Times - would have run its expose of still another terrorist-tracking program if it had found out about it when the program was first set in motion, in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks?

Would the Times have rushed the story into print and given it the front-page play it did last week if smoke was still rising from the charred ruins of the Twin Towers, and the ashes of the dead were still being excavated as around-the-clock crews sifted through that mountain of debris?

Would this story have seen print while the smell of fire and smoke still lingered over the Pentagon's blackened walls?

Would the world have been told about this secret program - well, formerly secret program - while police and firemen and rescue crews were still trying to locate the scattered remains of United Flight 93 in a once obscure field in Pennsylvania?

Suppose the long succession of funerals for the cops and firefighters who perished in the line of duty was still to come, and the country was still deep in shock, sorrow, anger . . . and girding up for this long war to come.

Suppose this was September 2001. Would The New York Times have revealed that various government agencies were cooperating with a European banking network to trace the movement of funds from al-Qaida's moneymen to its operatives in the field?

Perhaps you think even less of the Times than I do, but I can't imagine its editors deciding back then to tell the world about this counterterrorism program despite the pleas of government officials not to go public with the story.

Surely even the Times would have held back at the time, when our wounds were still fresh and other attacks were thought to be imminent, or at least inevitable. Surely the Times would have exercised some restraint, not just out of a concern for national security but out of an instinctive identity with a hurt and grieving nation as it prepared to strike back at those who did this - and those who helped them do it.

But that was then. Now, doubtless in large part because of programs like the one the Times has just outed, the terrorist attacks that were going to follow Sept. 11 haven't materialized. Not yet. So concerns about national security now take second place to politics as usual, and journalism as usual. It's back to normalcy as the sleeping giant begins to drift off again.

The somber silence that followed Sept. 11 as the nation gathered its resolve has given way to partisan sniping.

The news that government agencies have been able to track the terrorists' bank transfers is now supposed to elicit outrage, not applause.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.