How well is the Bush administration conducting the war on terrorism?
Overall, it deserves high grades, having shown an impressive seriousness of purpose, discipline, and vision. It made winning the war the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy and almost flawlessly pulled off the military campaign in Afghanistan.
It carefully picked out the next steps (soldiers to the Philippines, pressure on Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority, warning signals to Yemen and Somalia). It correctly made counterterrorism a high priority in American domestic life.
There is just one glaringly weak spot: The Bush team adamantly refuses to acknowledge that there is an ideology that inspires America's enemies, preferring to ascribe its motives to simple "evil."
Evil it is, but it follows from the specific set of radical utopian ideas known as militant Islam. Ignoring militant Islam today is like fighting World War II without fighting fascism, or fighting the cold war while wishing away communism.
The consequences of this mistake are practical and far-reaching. For example, airline security is a casualty. U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) guidelines issued after Sept. 11 forbid airline personnel from relying on "generalized stereotypes or attitudes or beliefs about the propensity of members of any racial, ethnic, religious, or national origin group to engage in unlawful activity."
Appearing to be Middle Eastern, speaking a Middle Eastern language, or having a Middle Eastern accent are inadmissible grounds for paying special attention to a passenger, as are Islamic attributes such as a woman's veil or a man's beard.
The government insists on what it calls the "but for" test. "But for this person's perceived race, ethnic heritage or religious orientation," security personnel must ask themselves, "would I have subjected this individual to additional safety or security scrutiny?" If the answer is no, extra scrutiny is not just disapproved of, but illegal.
It's like having reports of a tall, bearded mugger but requiring the police to devote equal attention to short females.
Worse, DoT regulations permit additional inspections only if passengers are "properly selected on a truly random basis." Stopping every 10th or 20th passenger is legal - but not stopping those who are nervous, shifty, or otherwise suspicious to the trained eye.
This disallows airline personnel from drawing on their experience or using their common sense, ignoring that many counterterrorism breakthroughs occurred precisely because an inspector followed a hunch. "A lot of it is in the nose," says John Beam, a former head of security for TWA.
Government regulations demand a militant dumbness and a pretense not to know what everyone does know - that the would-be hijackers come overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, from the ranks of militant Islam. They send the unfortunate signal that it is politically easier to send troops to Afghanistan than to confront the fact that the enemy has certain characteristics.
And woe to an airline that has the misfortune of stopping an Arab-American who happens not to be a terrorist but who is politically connected! Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) "caused quite a scene and . . . wasn't very polite" when Air France delayed him a day, according to a company spokesman. A presidential bodyguard named Walied Shater turned "very hostile" and engaged in "confrontational behavior," in the words of the American Airlines captain who denied him transportation.
(They're not terrorists, but both of these two gentlemen do, interestingly, associate with militant Islam. Issa has declared his "tremendous sympathy" for the work of Hezbollah, a group the U.S. government deems to be a terrorist organization. Shater rushed with his case of alleged bias to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based group with ties to another designated terrorist organization, Hamas. The extra attention given them turns out not to be entirely undeserved.)
The time has come for the Bush administration to find the courage to acknowledge that the enemy is not made up of random and featureless "terrorists" but is specifically staffed by the cadres of militant Islam.
The sooner it does so, the more efficiently the country will be able to protect itself by clamping down on the forces of militant Islam. The more the government delays, the more likely that attacks will continue.
The question boils down to this: How many more lives must be unnecessarily lost before American leaders have the courage to stand up to political correctness?