Dumb, Dumbest

Posted: Apr 27, 2004 12:00 AM

In l962 Michael Di Salle was running for governor of Ohio. It was a season in which U.S. officials were calling out an alarm against possible air attacks. Governor Rockefeller came close to writing into the New York State building code a requirement that new houses have individual bomb shelters, and he led the way by constructing a shelter in his own home and office. There was the problem of the huge expense of public bomb shelters. The Republican candidate in Ohio promised a $100 million program to provide these shelters if he was elected.

Democratic contender Mike Di Salle, something of a humorist, called a press conference. He would announce his own program for bomb shelters which would cost the state a mere $5,000. The press met him eagerly, and he explained what he would do. Namely construct two huge arrows at $2,500 each, visible high in the air. One, pointing northwest in neon lights would be labeled DETROIT. The second, pointing west, would be labeled CHICAGO. Why would bombers pause over Cleveland?

That lesson in nice, reductionist, idiomatic thought brings to mind the current impasse. It is vividly introduced by the April 26 headline on the front page of the New York Times: "MILITANTS IN EUROPE OPENLY CALL/ FOR JIHAD AND THE RULE OF ISLAM." The lengthy dispatch speaks of young Arab militants, beginning with one representative group in Luton, England. Some of its members are quoted: "They say they would like to see Prime Minister Tony Blair dead or deposed and an Islamic flag hanging outside No. 10 Downing Street."

They go on, like other Muslim militants quoted in the story, to "swear allegiance to Osama bin Laden and his goal of toppling Western democracies to establish an Islamic superstate under Shariah law.... They call the Sept. 11 hijackers the 'Magnificent 19.'" An Islamic leader in Hamburg is quoted: "My impression is that Muslims have become more and more angry against the United States."

These are not playboys of the kind who merely talk about terrorism. One of the Muslim clerics quoted in the story is accused of having coached Richard Reid, the Brit who boarded a trans-Atlantic flight carrying explosives in one of his shoes. One knot of Muslim extremists, last March, was intercepted with 1,200 pounds of ammonium nitrate. Five of these Pakistani-Britons have been charged with trying to build a terrorist bomb.

Over the weekend, a commentator for National Public Radio spoke of the bombs here and there exploded over the last decade, one of them in the basement of the Twin Towers, another alongside the destroyer USS Cole. In order to fight terrorists, the analyst said, "you have to fight them." For instance, we might have invaded Afghanistan, the al Qaeda headquarters: but that would not have been permitted by Congress. A second way would have been an intense economic blockade. This, however, would have been ineffective in the absence of international cooperation, which was not forthcoming. Finally, an intense security screening of young Arabs would have been appropriate, but this would not have been sanctioned by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The story quotes British authorities who say that laws to protect religious expression and civil liberties have the effect of limiting what they can do to interfere with seditious speech. The British are left with the weapon of deportation. "Though the British home secretary, David Blunkett, has sought to strip Abu Hamza of his British citizenship and deport him, the legal battle has dragged on for years while Abu Hamza keeps calling down the wrath of God."

Over here, you're not supposed to single people out for scrutiny on the basis of ethnic background. Ann Coulter, in her recent book Treason, illustrated the point. "In early December 2001, 60 Minutes host Steve Kroft interviewed [Transportation Secretary Norman] Mineta about his approach to securing the airlines from terrorist attack. Kroft observed that of twenty-two men currently on the FBI's most-wanted list, 'all but one of them has complexion listed as olive. They all have dark hair and brown eyes. And more than half of them have the name Mohammed.' Thus, he asked Mineta if airport security should give more scrutiny to someone named Mohammed ? 'just going down a passenger manifest list: Bob, Paul, John, Frank, Steven, Mohammed.' The secretary of transportation said, 'No.' In fact, Mineta was mystified by Kroft's question, asking him, 'Why should Mohammed be singled out?'"

Such edging out of sensible action, for fear of offending the protocols of political correctness, shows its face again in the problem the British have in distinguishing freedom of religion from seditious recruitment. The Brits are hardly alone: We have been kicking the case of Zacarias Moussaoui up and down the judicial corridors for more than two years. Prosecutors think he was the 20th man of what became the 19-man team that executed 9/11.

The languor of the law that protects minorities and minority opinion can be beautiful. It can also be plain dumb, as when old ladies are forced to pull off their shoes at airport security, when the arrows are out there clearly pointing at Detroit and Chicago.