As has been widely reported, federal authorities believe an Aurora, Colorado man named Najibullah Zazi was preparing to commit acts of terrorism in the United States. Ben Friedman has provided some insight into the charge against him.
I don't know how the case will come out, of course. I take it for what it is: an alleged terror plot. Terrorism is an acute security challenge because people who look like nincompoops to us might be activated by a capable leader and used as "muscle" in a real attack. If authorities act too early, it looks like there was never a threat. If they act too late, they might fail to prevent an attack.
Putting aside the merits, the press reaction to this case seems different from many past cases. Take this story from yesterday's Wall Street Journal. Along with reporting the possibility of this being the first Al Qaeda cell in the United States since 9/11, it says:
Hundreds of terrorism-related prosecutions, many for far more serious charges than lying to investigators, have been filed by U.S. authorities since the 9/11 attacks. On numerous occasions, U.S. officials have made startling allegations about terrorism suspects, only to later significantly dial back their rhetoric.
I was interested also by the tone of this USA Today story which focused as much on the U.S. government's issuance of terror alerts as on their number and validity. "Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the FBI and DHS have issued hundreds of similar bulletins," the story said. It's easy to see a reporter's skepticism in that sentence, and his signal to readers that they shouldn't get too agitated.
My sense — and it is only impressionistic — is that the media are starting to get their feet under them. After eight years of parroting official fear-mongering, serious reporters (I say mostly to exclude cable "news") are prepared to question what officials tell them. That can only be good. The press plays an important role in digesting information and equipping society to address terrorism along many dimensions, including girding against unnecessary fear and overreaction.