A calm that causes concern

Posted: Feb 04, 2003 12:00 AM
Scotland Yard tells me (no kidding) that the legendary police agency will neither confirm nor deny an Australian newspaper report saying that "chemical warfare protection suits" were discovered during the recent police raid on London's notorious Finsbury Park mosque, home pulpit to terrorist-imam Abu Hamza. According to the Melbourne Herald Sun, Scotland Yard and MI5 detectives decided to withhold the discovery of these nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) suits -- attire not usually associated with even the most exotic religious services -- fearing it "would spark panic." True report or false? Scotland Yard officials are "not prepared to discuss" the matter, which pretty much confirms a hot little story that has gotten the cold shoulder in Great Britain and beyond. Meanwhile, it seems unlikely that more reporting on what they really found in the mosque -- besides the stun gun, the imitation rifle, the gas canister and all the fake IDs -- would cause an honest-to-goodness panic. This is not to say that perfectly normal cases of the jitters wouldn't -- and shouldn't -- break out. Still, as recent events make clear, "panic" isn't the worst fate citizens of the free world now grapple with. In past days and weeks, there was the British raid on a north London flat, a hideaway for the deadly toxin ricin, that left one British police detective stabbed to death and, later, as many as a dozen Islamic militants under arrest; there was the dark-of-night Spanish sweep through Catalonia that netted explosives, two barrels of as-yet unnamed chemicals, and 16 mostly Algerian Islamic militants, who, according to reports, were not just planning a terrorist attack, but were poised to stage one. There was also a lucky break last week in Italy, where police picked up five Moroccans squatting in an abandoned farmhouse near Venice after finding a couple pounds of explosives hidden, as the London Telegraph rather vividly reported, "in a sock amongst dirty underwear in a chest of drawers in the kitchen." A subsequent raid on a makeshift mosque in Verona uncovered papers and maps marking the site of the local cathedral and NATO installation. While Europe has been spared the death and devastation of jihad that struck the United States 16 months ago -- and which strikes Israel continuously -- close calls in the EU are getting closer, and closer together. Panic, then, is the least of Europe's problems -- or ours. Indeed, a good shot of panic could be the salvation of the Western world. I say this amidst a surreal, almost strangling wave of complacency that has swept some of us -- France, leading Democrats, The New York Times -- into a never-never land of unbreachable security where we have unlimited time to debate and inspect; prepare and parley; bicker, march and wait. Unfortunately, this land doesn't exist. In his momentous and memorable State of the Union address, President Bush laid out the Iraqi threat, which includes vast and unaccounted-for stores of anthrax, botulinum toxin and assorted nerve gases (and the rocket-power required for delivery), and explained the need to defend the peace. As Mr. Bush put it, "A future lived at the mercy of terrible threats is no peace at all." He's right. It is no peace at all, and it's no future at all -- although it happens very much to be our present. There is tunnel vision on the Iraqi inspection process, but not on actual Iraqi disarmament; "making the case" (as though President Bush were lawyer-in-chief) is starting to seem more important than bringing the terror regime -- and the ever-morphing terror networks that ring and overlap that regime -- to a defanged state of harmlessness. Which brings us to another modern mystery: why so many deny the link between the war on Iraq and the war on Islamic terrorism, even as these same people will always predict the one will exacerbate the other? We may never nab a swab of bin Laden DNA off Saddam Hussein's best china teacup -- although who knows what lies within those presidential palaces -- but we can still connect Iraq to the Islamic terror networks, including Al Qaeda. The mounting evidence now includes Abu Massab Zarqawi, an Al Qaeda weapons expert believed to have masterminded the London ricin plot and the assassination of American diplomat Laurence Foley in Jordan last fall. Both these incidents came after the Al Qaeda terrorist's medical sojourn in Baghdad, where he was patched up after being badly wounded in the war in Afghanistan. The New York Post reports that the one-legged Jordanian is the man President Bush had in mind this week in warning the nation against a "day of horror like none we have ever known" should Saddam Hussein remain free to supply terrorists from his chemical and biological stockpile. Will this news spark panic? At the very least, it should boost some pulse rates -- a condition vital to continued survival.