Why the Christmas Day Plot Was a Blessing in Disguise

Let's try a little thought experiment.

Imagine you're some sort of alien life form newly arrived on planet Earth. You are neither liberal nor conservative, Republican nor Democrat. In fact, you're not even sure what those words mean. At 4:30 this afternoon, you were positioned in front of a television and forced to watch President Obama's remarks on the attempted Christmas Day terror attack, during which you learned (a) that there was an attempted Christmas Day terror attack; (b) that it failed; (c) that the attacker, a 23-year-old Qaeda-trained Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was able to board Northwest Airlines Flight 253, despite numerous red flags, because of a systemic failure to "connect the dots" across several government agencies; and (d) that the Obama administration is now beefing up our watch-list standards, improving our data-analysis procedures and capacities, conducting extended accountability reviews throughout the national-security community, pushing for more advanced screening technologies in airports around the world, ensuring that the intel community assigns specific responsibility for investigating high-risk leads, and ordering that reports of threats to the U.S. be distributed more widely and rapidly among the relevant agencies.

Given that no one had to sacrifice his or her life to inspire these much-needed fixes, how would you react? My guess is that you'd see the whole Christmas Day incident as a blessing in disguise. A frightening, flammable, underpants-shaped disguise, maybe, but a blessing all the same. 

Too bad none of the earthlings in Washington, D.C., realize this—or are willing to admit it. Instead, the Beltway crowd has subjected us to weeks of inane chatter about which political party was to blame for the security breach (Obama is shuttering Guantánamo Bay! But Bush is the one who freed Gitmo detainees in Yemen! But Democrats! But Republicans!); about whether the president played too many rounds of golf before responding publicly to the scare; and about whether the words he chose when he did respond will resound mightily in voters' ears 10 months from now and usher in a shining new era of GOP rule in Congress. In other words, Washington has spent a lot more time obsessing over how this could affect Washington than how it should affect the rest of us.

This is sad, if unsurprising. Ostensibly, the point of combating terrorism is to protect innocent people from getting killed, not to win elections. Unfortunately, our political system never seems to notice or fix the flaws in our defenses until some sort of incident occurs (see also: September 11). The problems Obama identified today—no action on Al Qaeda in Yemen, loopholes in our watch-list system, a lack of coordination among intelligence gatherers—did not magically materialize the moment he set foot in the White House; they're problems that have existed for more than eight years now. They are bipartisan, apolitical problems. And if the Christmas Day plot—a victimless ordeal, unlike, say, 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina—ultimately ensures that these vulnerabilities are addressed and that, in turn, American lives are saved in the months, weeks, or years ahead, then frankly I think we are the winners here.  At this point, all the blather about 2010 and 2012 is irrelevant.

At this point. In his remarks, the president made it clear that "the buck stops with me." "When the system fails," he said, "it is my responsibility." The beauty of democracy is that we get to hold our leaders accountable every couple of Novembers. If the changes Obama is making now aren't smart enough to improve our national security, and we are attacked as a result, then let's have a discussion about whether he's the right person to keep us safe. But for now I'm hoping we can focus on how to prevent something deadlier than the Christmas Day plot from happening in the future—on "citizenship" rather than "partisanship," as Obama put it.

Almost seems like an alien concept, doesn't it?