When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate an explosive aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day, liberals were quick to warn against the clear and present danger.
It wasn't the threat of al Qaeda-trained bombers blowing up Detroit-bound planes that concerned them. Rather, liberals feared that Americans might blame the Obama administration for failing to protect them from terrorists or -- perhaps even worse -- demand action against the violent extremists who want to kill us all.
Liberals believe most of their fellow citizens are benighted troglodytes, so there was also the frightening possibility of a xenophobic hate-crime backlash. Monitoring one reliable barometer of elite sentiment, Andrew Breitbart remarked: "Based upon my NPR listening sessions, I am fearful that reactionary Americans are going to go on a rampage against Nigerians tomorrow."
While the anti-Nigerian rampage failed to develop over the holiday weekend, there were "reactionary Americans" willing to criticize the Obama administration. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) said the president needs to "connect the dots," and accused the administration of trying to "downplay the threat from terrorism."
As if on cue, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told CNN that there was "no indication that [Abdulmutallab's attack] is part of anything larger," and further declared that "the system worked."
Given that the would-be terrorist got past security with explosives in his underwear, and was foiled only by a faulty detonator and a brave Dutch passenger, Napolitano's claim provoked scoffing by conservatives. Michelle Malkin depicted Napolitano with a red clown nose. "Jasper Schuringa is 'the system,' apparently," Mary Katharine Ham quipped, referring to the young Dutchman who subdued the 23-year-old Nigerian.
Napolitano's assurance that Abdulmutallab's attack was not "part of anything larger" seemed to contradict reports from ABC News that the 23-year-old Nigerian had trained for his attack in Yemen with al Qaeda, which provided him with his bomb. ABC also reported that investigators believe Abdulmutallab had been influenced by radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki, spiritual advisor to Malik Hasan, whose one-man jihad at Fort Hood left 13 dead in November.
Among the "reactionary Americans" who saw Abdulmutallab as part of something larger was the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
"This year the American homeland has been the target of an attempted terrorist attack more than a dozen times," Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman told Fox News, describing an apparent "breakdown" that permitted warnings about Abdulmutallab to go unheeded. "To me, most significantly, what happened after this man's father called our embassy in Nigeria? What happened to that information?"
Lieberman furthermore suggested that, if neglected, Yemen could become a terrorist haven. "Iraq was yesterday's war. Afghanistan is today's war. If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war. That's the danger we face."
Lieberman's call for preemptive action provoked an obscenity-filled tirade from liberal blogger Spencer Ackerman, while Matthew Yglesias of Think Progress remarked, "The good news is that while progressives basically need Joe Lieberman's vote in the Senate to pass domestic legislation…nobody needs to listen to him about Yemen."
Yglesias then emphasized the "political context" of U.S. military action in Yemen: "Nobody likes to see American airstrikes happening inside their country. But if the political context is right, people can see it as the lesser of two evils. If the context isn't right, that can build support for al Qaeda faster than it kills terrorists."
By portraying U.S. military action as a basic cause of Islamic extremism, liberals thereby implicitly argue that U.S. military action can never be the appropriate response to Islamic extremism. The more we attack al Qaeda, Yglesias suggests, the more Muslims will resort to terrorism -- unless we have the proper "political context," whatever that means.
Do Yemenis really have such a nuanced perception of "political context"? This need concern us only if we accept the tacit proposition that there is potentially unlimited support for al Qaeda in Yemen or elsewhere in the Islamic world. However, more than eight years after the 9/11 attacks there is no real evidence that the U.S. military response has made Islamic radicalism more widespread than it was in 2001. Suicidal pursuit of violent death lacks universal appeal and the human resources of al-Qaeda are not infinite. Therefore, U.S. military action should not be contingent on "political context," but rather on whether it kills terrorists or, at least, deprives them of the opportunity to plot new attacks at their leisure.
Liberal reactions to the Abdulmutallab case are very much reminiscent of liberal attitudes during the Cold War. What was important to liberals then was that the U.S. avoid provoking Moscow, and that outspoken anti-communists should not be allowed to exploit public fear of the Soviet menace to the detriment of well-meaning liberals like Alger Hiss, Owen Lattimore and Harry Dexter White.
From the so-called "anti-anti-communism" of the liberal past, we have arrived at the anti-anti-terrorism of the liberal present. We are not permitted to question the good intentions of liberals, although perhaps it is still permissible to point out the destination of the road notoriously paved with such intentions.