"Just how real is the holiday terrorist threat?"
The question isn't rhetorical, nor is it an arid theoretical. Since Thanksgiving, it's been the query of the season, reflecting the uneasy spirit of our times. I've had it popped on me at parties, in the gym, on the phone and by my wife.
Even though I'd rather drink party punch and talk about football, each unique questioner deserves a thoughtful answer. At some sincere level, the person is asking for a thoughtful opinion regarding the likelihood of life during a season proclaiming joy to the world weighed against the possibility of death at the hands of mass murderers driven by a malignant religious zealotry.
So I've tried to provide the most honest answer I can, knowing full well the question always begs background questions involving trust and competence.
Stipulating that each conversation has been unique, the trust issue boils down to, "Do you trust the U.S. government to tell you the essential truth?" Trust also figures in the second troublesome issue, which I'll frame as, "Do you believe U.S. security agencies competently address the threat of terrorism?"
Trust in government veracity varies and is expressed as a matter of degrees. I've been surprised, but personal political leanings don't seem to be the decisive factor. Everyone seems to have noticed that despite the rhetoric, President Obama's counter-terror policies do not differ significantly from those of the Bush administration. When asked if I think Obama is telling us the truth about the threat, my answer is yes -- and so was President Bush.
The competence discussion inevitably damns the Transportation Safety Administration, which is regarded as at best a nuisance and at worst an obscene example of politically correct jackboot government.
As for the intelligence agencies' performance, people hope they do their job. When asked, I offer my opinion: They're good, but they can't tell you how good they are, because then the bad guys know and then our spies die. The U.S. military consistently receives the highest marks.
Now that we've covered suspicions and cynicism, the conversation returns to the initial question. Holiday travel spurs it, I say, but you're asking me to judge the constant threat posed by militant Islamist terrorists. That is asking me what I know about our enemy.
I know that al-Qaida hates you because in 1492 the Spaniards completed the Reconquista and in 1924 Turkey's Kemal Ataturk ended the caliphate. I know Osama bin Laden declared war on America in 1998, and in 2001 he proved he meant it.
What an enemy says matters -- what he does matters even more. What he does matters more than the fact you didn't ask for war or don't like TSA examining your pants.
What does this enemy do? He tries to kill you. Have we damaged al-Qaida? Yes. Predator strikes have ripped al-Qaida and Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. It'll take the American left 30 years to admit it, but Iraq has been a huge defeat for al-Qaida.
Is it over? No. We're engaged in a struggle for the terms of modernity, which means there is a cultural war beyond the shooting war. If it sounds daunting, it is -- and it's going to be too real for many New Years to come.
In the last 10 days, I've added this coda. We had a child fly home for Christmas, and she flew in from overseas. As I followed her flight's progress on the Internet -- up to the minute digital comfort -- I tried not to think about last year's Christmas terror attack on a Detroit-bound airliner. The thought, however, wouldn't leave my mind.
Where I saw the computer icon of a civilian jumbo jet safely passing over Nova Scotia, an Al-Qaida emir, on his laptop in Yemen or Pakistan, saw a ballistic missile heading for Dallas.
Both views of that icon have a basis in physical fact. In the physical world, they clash in an either-or struggle of life or death. During her flight, my daughter was on a battlefield, not one of her choosing or mine. I prayed that intelligence agencies and security officers had cleared it of the enemy.