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In Face of Terror, We Press On

By Froma Harrop

Six years after 9-11, we're not safer from terrorist attack, the intelligence agencies tell us. But we're back on airplanes and filling sports stadiums. Are we braver? Or just complacent?

Over the past 12 months, I've been in crammed New York subways, a congested Detroit airport, a sold-out Houston theater, a packed rodeo in Broken Bow, Neb., and other crowded venues coast-to-coast and urban-to-rural. The thought is horrible, but terrorists could have committed mass murder at any of them.

And so back to the latest National Intelligence Estimate, which states that the United States faces an "evolving terrorist threat" and that al-Qaida is plotting an encore on the scale of 9-11. The scary report has caused no perceptible change in Americans' behavior. It dominated the headlines for all of 24 hours, then slid down the rankings.

There's courage, forgetfulness, a touch of ignorance and a kind of stoicism -- the sense that there's no rational response to the menace, so just keep doing what you're doing.

New York City has the most to fear from an attack, but there are mobs everywhere you go in Gotham. The subways were standing-room-only the very Monday after two attempted weekend bombings in Britain -- in front of a London nightclub and at the Glasgow airport -- and close to the second anniversary of the London Underground and bus bombings that killed 52 commuters.

In the days right after 9-11, many people avoided New York. The mayor begged Americans to come in for dinner and a show. Now, there are lines around every other corner.

My theory is that those who do weigh the dangers have developed a kind of grading system for threats -- while deciding there's little to do about any of them. Foremost is the al-Qaida danger, strengthened by the botched invasion and occupation of Iraq. As noted, many intelligence experts believe that al-Qaida's plan for the United States centers not on ordinary mayhem but on another extravaganza. Some think that the foiled plot in 2006 to blow up perhaps 10 airliners traveling between Britain and the United States was one such project.

These are bizarre designs that one is hard-pressed to predict. Obviously, the best defense is good intelligence that uncovers the plans and catches plotters before they strike. That includes knowing who is in this country. (I guarantee you that after the next massive attack, the campaign against Real ID -- secure state driver's licenses -- will vanish.)

The homegrown attempts at massacre are harder to stop. The most recent example was the bloodbath perpetrated by a madman on a leafy college campus in western Virginia. That could be classified as terrorism in that its intent was to spread fear and maximize casualties. So could the appalling 1999 high-school shootings in a Denver suburb. In these cases, the attackers commit suicide, as do many Mideast bombers.

Thus, no one is totally secure. The contention that the Heartland is safe would not sit well with the people of Oklahoma City, targeted in 1995 by a decorated U.S. Army veteran.

That this last group of terrorists contains crazy Americans and not Islamic militants does not change all the dynamics. The Americans also had root causes, at least in their heads. One can imagine that the British-born terrorists of Asian descent were directed by inner demons -- and used political motives as a respectable cover for their mental instability.

The intelligence warning lights -- and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's hunch that bad actors may have big plans for this summer -- obviously hasn't stopped Americans from gathering. Brave or oblivious, we're going about our business.

Copyright 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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