Homeland security: alert, not hysterical
Are we asking too much, trying to have it both ways? First we complain that the FBI and CIA failed to share and pursue clues that might have signaled the 9/11 tragedy. Then we complain that, in their zeal to prevent the next 9/11, security agencies are sometimes trampling all over citizens' rights.
No, we're not asking too much. We must have it both ways. Being both the land of the free and the home of the brave is inherently demanding, even in normal times.
Of course this nation, great at as it is, has witnessed serious and inexcusable lapses both in readiness, such as the outbreak of the Korean War, and in protection of rights, notably the internship of Americans of Japanese Ancestry in World War II. And we must guard against both kinds of lapses now, as tensions run high.
It's never unpatriotic to subject ourselves to hard, searching self-examination. President Bush is right to support establishing an independent commission to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks, as congressional investigators continue to uncover new instances of failure by security agencies.
It's now reported, for instance, that FBI headquarters blocked an agent's request to pursue a Saudi visitor to the United States. "Someday," warned the frustrated agent, "someone will die." Two weeks later, the suspect was one of the al-Qaida hijackers.
But there's also the danger that fear will bring us new forms of suppression or misrule. One warning sign was the incident in Florida recently in which three men were pulled over as suspected terrorists after a woman said she heard the men making remarks that suggested a terrorist attack was planned for Sept. 13.
Those three men now have the rare honor of being the only three Muslim Americans we know of, out of hundreds who have been questioned or detained, to have been categorically exonerated by the FBI.
But nobody has apologized to them not after they received death threats, not after they lost the Miami jobs they were traveling to. Even the $126 citation they received for running a toll booth without paying has been dismissed after a videotape showed that they paid, after all. No apology for that, either.
It behooves us in these times to be careful, in more ways than one. Right or wrong, the Georgia woman who insists she heard the men making remarks that suggested a terrorist attack did the right thing. She called authorities, who also did the right thing. They coordinated in ways that were largely unheard of before 9/11, and quickly flagged the men down.
That's the point where erring on the side of caution ends, however.
The media circus that followed the pursuit of the men, the decision by a Miami hospital to withdraw their jobs, the death threats, the 18-hour detention add up to wretched excess.
It was a false alarm, as it turns out. Odds are there will be many more false alarms. We have to learn to handle them with more grace and compassion.
The times call for alertness, not hysteria.