Had he not proven incompetent to detonate his lap bomb, Umar Farouk Abdulmullatab would have carried off an air massacre to rival Lockerbie. We would all have ended Christmas day watching TV footage of 300 mangled bodies being picked up around Detroit.
The system breakdown was total. His father had reported to the U.S. embassy that Umar had gone extremist, disowned his family and vanished in Yemen. Though the 23-year-old Nigerian had been put on a U.S. terrorist watch list and denied a visa to enter Britain, his U.S. visa was not revoked.
Though he had been in Yemen for months, bought his plane ticket in cash and boarded without luggage, he was neither red-flagged nor screened or body-searched.
We were spared the horrible consequences of our incompetence, only because of his incompetence. The episode raises questions not only about airline security, but about how we are fighting the real war we are in.
Defeating al-Qaida calls for ways and means different from dealing with domestic crime families like the Gottis or Gambinos.
Organized crime is the province of police and prosecutors.
Crime bosses are read their rights and granted access to a lawyer. They come into court in suits to undergo a fair and equal contest to ascertain guilt or innocence. If acquitted, they walk free.
This 23-year-old Nigerian is an enemy combatant whose way of war is mass murder. Under the rules of war, he may be shot. The immediate imperative was not to read him his Miranda rights or to phone Ron Kuby. It was to subject Abdulmullatab to intense and hostile interrogation so that U.S. forces can quickly find, fix, attack and kill his comrades and camp followers.
Unlike the war on crime, or the war on drugs, this is not a metaphorical war. There is no presumption of innocence, rather a presumption that Umar is a terrorist and did not act alone.
The questions he should have been asked as soon as he was pulled off the plane and hauled to a prison hospital are these:
Who taught you to detonate a bomb? Who sewed the underwear in which you concealed the components? Who was with you in Yemen? What are the names of those you trained with? Who helped you get on that plane? Who did you stay with on your visits to the U.S.? Who gave you cash? Who paid your bills? Where is your computer? And if you want pain medicine for those burns, you will tell us.
A question arises after the lackadaisical way the administration first dealt with this potential horror. Are we governed by serious people? A second question is raised by the ideological journey of this 23-year-old from devout Muslim to extremist to terrorist, and by his sojourn from Nigeria to London to Yemen to America.
In Omar Bradley's comment on Korea, are we fighting the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong enemy?
Obama just ordered 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan. Yet, even if Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal pull it off and pacify Kandahar, how does that protect the American homeland from suicide bombers hell-bent on blowing up airliners?
How does turning the tide in Afghanistan stop radical Muslim youth in Africa or Arabia from being trained to board planes with bombs and blow them up over the Atlantic? How do 130,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq make us more safe from an al-Qaida that has moved into Waziristan, Baluchistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa?
The Sept. 11 massacre may have been decided upon in Afghanistan. But the perpetrators were Saudis and Egyptians who plotted, planned and trained in Germany, Boston, Delray Beach and Northern Virginia.
How has occupying two nations at a cost of 5,000 dead, 35,000 wounded and a trillion dollars made us safer from an enemy that more resembles the Apache of Geronimo than the panzers of Rommel?
If protection of the homeland against another Sept. 11 is the goal of this war, how relevant to that goal is the building of clinics and schools in Kabul and keeping the Taliban at bay in Helmand?
Are we fighting other people's wars, rather than our own war?
We Americans are today widely hated in the Arab and Islamic world by scores of millions, out of whom al-Qaida need but recruit a few hundred suicide bombers to wreak havoc on our country.
Does having 200,000 U.S. troops in their part of the world, fighting and killing Muslims, make our country more secure than defending our borders, keeping radicals out, running al-Qaida down, and tracking and killing them where they are?
To win the war we are in, we have to fight the war we are in, not the war we prefer to fight because no one else is so good at it.