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.
The snappy sound bite is back in the news: "There are no checks and balances to look at people's checks and balances." - The Honorable Ed Markey, a congressmen from, of course, Massachusetts.
The congressman is echoed by Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union, who calls this counterterrorist program a "frightening invasion of civil liberties."
How strange: I don't feel frightened in the least by the existence of a Terrorist Finance Tracking Program somewhere in the bowels of the Treasury Department. Quite the opposite. On hearing of it, my immediate reaction was: Well, at least this government has been doing something right. Especially when I read about the various al-Qaida types who had been tracked down through this quiet operation.
The only thing about this story that bothered me, besides its having been printed at all, was how many former G-men must have blabbed about this secret operation for word to reach The New York Times. That aspect of the story is not assuring at all. Don't these people take oaths not to reveal classified information?
There's no doubt the terrorists' privacy has been violated, but isn't that a consummation devoutly to be wished?
Have the rights of the innocent been in any way abused? The New York Times offers no such examples. Let it be noted that the banking cooperative that provided American authorities with all these leads - the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or SWIFT - requires that government investigators produce the name of someone they suspect of a link to terrorism before it will release this information.
So let us now praise those Europeans who cooperated with American authorities to track down the bad guys. They renew the hope for solidarity in this war on terror. Unlike The New York Times.