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Published: Friday, 5/7/2010

The price of liberty

FINGER-POINTERS want to know why confessed terrorist Faisal Shahzad wasn't caught before he was able to park a vehicle loaded with propane tanks, gasoline cans, fertilizer, and M-88 firecrackers in Times Square. The answer is that absolute security from those who would do us harm is impossible in a free society.

Perhaps, as we learn more about Shahzad's activities in the weeks and months before his inept attempt to turn a Nissan Pathfinder into a bomb, a smoking gun will emerge. But right now, it doesn't appear there were any red flags that U.S. counterterrorism agents should have recognized.

Shahzad arrived in America on a student visa in 1999, when he was 19. His story is typical of many immigrants. He attended college, obtaining undergraduate and master's degrees. He married a woman born in the United States, got a job as a financial analyst, bought a home, and started a family. Last year, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He had no criminal record.

Even his frequent trips to Pakistan would have been unremarkable. Pakistan was both the land of his birth and the place where his family continued to live.

Something apparently changed a year ago, but it's not clear it was anything that should have attracted the attention of counterterrorism officials. Similar to thousands of other Americans, he watched foreclosure procedures begin on his home. A few months later, he quit his job and neighbors say the family began selling personal items.

Late last year, the family moved, perhaps back to Pakistan, but he returned to the United States in February. He rented an apartment, bought the Pathfinder, and legally purchased a gun from a gun shop. Again, nothing remarkable occurred until last Saturday, when he set off on his bizarre bombing run.

Shahzad was so far under the radar that had he gone to the airport immediately after leaving the explosives-laden sport utility vehicle in Times Square, it seems likely he could have been sipping tea in a Pakistani hideaway before U.S. officials discovered his name.

What should be of greater interest to the finger-pointers is how he was able to get on a flight to Dubai on Monday evening, several hours after his identity had been discovered and his name and passport number added to the no-fly list.

Either U.S. officials or Emirate Airlines very nearly dropped the ball. When U.S. Customs agents arrived to arrest Shahzad, the airplane reportedly had left the gate and was preparing to take off.

In the future, airlines will be required to check no-fly lists within two hours of new names being added. That's an improvement from the 24 hours they have had, but airlines should have to check the list immediately in cases where a suspect in an act of terror may be on the run.

Ultimately, however, Shahzad's near success in carrying out a terror attack is the cost of doing business in a democracy. If Americans want to feel truly safe, they would have to agree to be less free. That would be a bad trade.

As Benjamin Franklin's Historical Review of Pennsylvania noted in 1759: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."



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