Commentary: Keep politics out of terrorism fight

The Miami HeraldJanuary 7, 2010 

On Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a student from Nigeria, allegedly tried to blow up a jetliner bound for Detroit. He failed due to some defect in his explosives and the quick reflexes of passengers who subdued him. As you might expect, this close call has some of us asking hard, but necessary questions:

Would full body scanners have stopped Abdulmutallab before he could bring explosives aboard the plane? Shouldn't the fact that his father alerted U.S. officials that his son had become radicalized have flagged him as a security risk? How can this incident be used to hurt the Democrats?

Granted, that last one may not have been high on your list of pressing questions, but it was obviously of vital importance to the opposition party. As a Washington Post headline put it: Republicans see political opportunity; GOP says jet incident is more proof Democrats are weak on security. Sure enough, there followed a spate of condemnation, led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who accused President Obama of "pretending" we are not at war.

Just as a factual matter, it's difficult to see how the GOP can carry off this argument with a straight face. If Abdulmutallab's bungled attempt to blow up a jetliner on President Obama's watch proves Democrats are soft on terrorism, it stands to reason that Richard Reid's bungled attempt to blow up a jetliner on President Bush's watch proves the same about Republicans. I'm just sayin'.

Not that the GOP has a monopoly on inappropriate questions. The near tragedy had Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking one of her own: how can I cover my backside? Her solution was to suggest, on ABC's This Week, that there was really nothing to be concerned about. "Once this incident occurred," she said, "the system worked." One can only wonder what color is the sky in her reality.

Perhaps Madame Secretary is unaware of this, but the system is supposed to prevent incidents; it deserves no praise for the fact that Abdulmutallab was competently taken into custody after a miracle saved the jetliner from the explosives he managed to smuggle through security.

Thankfully, Napolitano recanted her nonsensical blather the next day, which, as it happens, was the day before the president belatedly conceded the "human and systemic failures" that almost led to tragedy. But I submit that her initial, defensive, reaction, taken alongside the GOP's reflexive attempt to exploit the incident for political gain, speaks volumes about why Washington cannot seem to fix airline security -- or, for that matter, anything else.

So polarized has our leadership become that it is incapable of seeing in any dimension beyond the political. When attempted mass murder is seen as an "opportunity" on the one side and a signal to circle the wagons on the other, one can only conclude that for some, partisanship literally matters more than life itself.

I know what you're thinking and for the record, yes: I did indeed make this same argument -- repeatedly -- when Democrats tried to use 9/11 to damage George W. Bush.

I renew it now with an urgency. Too often, our leaders cannot work for the greater good because they acknowledge no good greater than politics. But if that's truly our prime directive and highest imperative, God help us all.

The unacceptable fact is that, eight years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Abdulmutallab was able to waltz aboard a U.S.-bound jetliner carrying explosives. And Republicans are wondering how they can turn this to their advantage? The White House point person on terrorism is wondering how she can deflect the blame?

Small wonder we have no answer for the problem of air security. Step one in getting the right answers? Start asking the right questions.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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