Editorial: Keeping America safe, through skill and luck

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Confronted with a smoke-spewing SUV in New York's Times Square that had a crudely wired bomb inside - but little else in terms of definitive evidence - law enforcement officials deserve applause for being able to track down, arrest and reportedly secure a quick confession from Pakistani-born U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad, all within 53 hours.

That he was captured in an almost-too-perfect-for-Hollywood, last-second halting of a Dubai-bound plane about to take off from Kennedy International Airport highlights the degree to which good luck and skill combined to make the investigation a success. Things might have gone much differently had attentive vendors in Times Square not spotted the out-of-place vehicle; had the device not been so poorly designed; had investigators not been able to quickly put the pieces together and begin to identify their man by running down the last owner of the Nissan Pathfinder, ultimately netting the number of the prepaid cell phone Shahzad used to buy the car - and to get calls from Pakistan.

It's easy to gripe about government goofs, to demand explanations for why the ever-vague "someone" hadn't put two and two together before now, or to claim that we remain all too vulnerable to terrorism. To do so here ignores much, not least the many government employees who are doing a professional job pushing back in the fight against a sometimes formidable but always persistent enemy - from military members on the battlefield, to the federal task force put in place here, to attentive customs officials. No system of rules and regulations will ever be perfect. All we can ask is that it be continually refined so the same problems don't reoccur.

To that end, credit the government for quickly tightening regulations to require carriers to routinely update their federal no-fly lists - every two hours rather than every 24 - once it became apparent that Emirates Airlines had not done so in this case after the feds had finished connecting the dots to Shahzad. Fortunately, Customs and Border Protection workers at the airport noticed the name when the airline didn't and promptly sounded the alarm. Otherwise Shahzad might have gotten away.

The next few days will likely provide more answers as to motive and how the attempted terrorism was planned, thanks to an apparently cooperative suspect and to ongoing questioning of those arrested in connection with this incident in Pakistan. Getting that detail is vital, as Shahzad didn't seem to fit the profile of an extremist. The son of a respected Pakistani government bureaucrat, he raised no red flags 12 years ago when he arrived on a student visa, secured bachelor's and master's degrees here, held down a financial sector job, bought a house, married an American Muslim woman, began a family and secured citizenship. By all outward appearances he was the epitome of a successful immigrant.

Was it all a mask? What prompted his radicalization, despite showing little sign of it other than an outburst against President George W. Bush after the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Was it when he left his job last year - walking away from his home and letting the bank begin foreclosure proceedings - allegedly to visit family and care for his ailing father in Pakistan? Who were his contacts while apparently being schooled in terrorism practices in the lawless region on the Pakistani-Afghan border?

The more answers we get to those questions, the easier it will be to catch those who helped him and to prepare for next time.

Again, this reminds Americans of the need for constant vigilance - from everyone, whether badge-wearing law enforcement or a Times Square vendor noticing something that doesn't look quite right. An analysis by the Wall Street Journal tags this latest as the eighth attempt at a small-scale attack linked to Islamic extremism in the last year. Ten plots have been thwarted in the last decade in the New York area alone. Let us all be thankful that this was another.

Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.