Words are important

Mayor Bloomberg of New York today referred to the foiled plot to blow up multiple airplanes as a “criminal conspiracy” and emphasized the the central role of the NYPD (“the best police force in the world”) in keeping New Yorkers safe from future attacks. The intelligence and the disruption operation, resulting in the arrest of 21 at least 24 suspects, was carried out by Scotland Yard.

To the extent that terrorist acts are being prevented or pre-empted, worldwide, it is thanks to the work of law enforcement, and the cooperation of law enforcement agencies internationally. Plots have been disrupted in a number of European countries, who are not at war with anyone, as well as in Canada, in addition to (one presumes) the US. But hizzoner was off-message; the rhetoric you will soon hear from the US talking heads, starting with heads of government agencies and the head of government himself, will quickly turn the conversation away from the effectiveness of law enforcement and back to the concept of “war.” [Edit: As predicted, George W. Bush lost no time in getting in front of TV cameras to say that this event is a reminder that we are at “war” with “Islamic fascists.”] But it was not an act of war that disrupted these terrorists. No armies, navies, marines, bombs, explosives, commandos even, were involved. It was good police work.

Wars happen between nations and involve armies and air forces and things getting blown up, and, inevitably, the deaths of many people. Wars also have beginnings and endings that are more or less identifiable. Police work, however, is never finished, even on days when no one commits a crime.

But the war rhetoricians will tell you that to think of terrorism as criminality and the efforts against them as police work is to be soft on terror and an act of surrender. They are wrong. When even a good nation begins to act lawlessly, then terror has already won.

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