Something happened yesterday in London but some of us aren't quite sure what it was, or even if it was.
Scotland Yard, just like in the movies, raided several rats' nests in London, Birmingham and High Wycombe to seize 21 men before they could put in motion their plot to blow up a dozen airliners over the Atlantic. The arrests, which continued yesterday, were the work of dogged detectives with the cooperation of authorities in Pakistan.
The cops no doubt enjoyed a run of the good luck that usually accompanies hard work. Some of us sighed a great sigh of relief, tempered by the chill brought on by the knowledge that maybe other plotters are still at large. Some of us, but not all of us.
Politicians on this side of the Atlantic seized on the opportunity to make a little noise. If you think this was one event that couldn't be spun as something wicked by George W. Bush, you obviously never heard of Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid, giddy over the resurrection of George McGovern in Connecticut. Not all of us are quick students of reality. Reuters, the London-based news service so high-minded that it won't even call terrorists "terrorists" and is perhaps preoccupied with figuring out how much of its coverage of the fighting in Lebanon has been faked, insists on calling it a "suspected" plot. Agence France-Presse sullenly calls it an "alleged plot," and suggests that the triumph of Scotland Yard is just more American politics, enabling the Bush White House to tag Democrats as wimps and wussies eager to raise the white flag. The Council on American-Islamic Relations said some of the right things denouncing "the suspected alleged plot," but spokesmen spent most of their Washington press conference yesterday lecturing the rest of us not to think that just because "the suspected alleged suspects" are Muslims the murderous plot has anything to do with Islamic jihad.
It's true that many perhaps even most of the Muslims in our midst mean no harm to anyone, and want only to be good Americans with tolerance and kindness for all, but it's a libel and a slander to suggest that Americans need to be warned not to engage in a "backlash" against Muslims. Americans, provoked no end by Islamic radicals, have nevertheless treated Muslims, as they should, with the respect they treat Methodists.
The London arrests will harvest a lot of one-day headlines and for a few days we'll hear pious tut-tutting from the usual suspects, and we'll be further harassed at airports by tightening of security. The security men collected a lot of perfume and cosmetics yesterday some of their wives may be the best-smelling women in their neighborhoods and blue-haired Lutheran grannies of Minnesota can expect to be pulled out of line again for questioning, not because the inspectors expect to find terrorists among them but because they would be accused of "profiling" if they question only suspicious-looking characters named Mohammed.
Whether modern Islam has anything to teach the world about tolerance and understanding is something best left to theologians and George W. Bush, but yesterday the president called the enemy in the war on terror "Islamic fascists," using neither the usual term "Islamist" nor his usual mantra paying tribute to the "religion of peace."
The foiling of "mass murder on an unimaginable scale," as a London police superintendent describes it, may be the last opportunity the West will have to get serious about the threat before we have to deal with death and destruction as we have not seen it before. The restrictions on movement through airports, the electronic surveillance of the flow of money through American banks, and the heightened police visibility would never have been tolerated by Americans in more innocent times, but will be necessary for a season. We don't have to like it and vigilance against unreasonable breaching of civil liberties will be more important than ever but necessity requires that we put up with it.
Most important of all, we must recognize that the madness foiled in London is part of the worldwide Islamist assault on civilization, and cannot be separated from the war in Iraq, the threat from Iran and the Hezbollah provocations of Israel in Lebanon. We can long for happier days, and imagine that we can retreat behind the ocean barriers that protected us for so long, but it will be the retreat to a shroud.