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.
The Zazi case has an important benefit. More muscular reporting or not, the episode gives Americans a chance to see what an alleged terror cell looks like. They see that law enforcement officials are working to discover and disrupt terror cells. It's far less frightening than what Americans' imaginations have been coming up with since 9/11. Terrorists are not geniuses, it turns out, and they have no magic powers.
When I visited Singapore in the spring of 2008, authorities there were looking for an alleged terrorist, an Indonesian who may have fled to Malaysia. They had posted pictures of him in the subway and elsewhere. He was a smallish man and he looked no different from any other accused criminal.
"What a relief to have a terrorist to look for," I've joked since then. "If only we had one!"
It is a joke, irreverence is my stock in trade, and my true desire is the same as everyone's — no terrorists anywhere — but there's a serious kernel to it: Getting a look at terrorists is reassuring compared to what the imagination will produce in their absence.
Since 9/11, many Americans have been gripped by fear of Islamist terrorists. Learning how a terror cell might form up and seeing how it can be disrupted provides Americans some needed familiarity with actual terrorism. That familiarity provides reassurance to many Americans that they are safer than they thought.
Terrorists are fallible. Law enforcement is on the case. We are not confronted by anything close to an existential threat.
Whatever the outcome, thank you Zazi case! Spread the good news!