The Speaker’s Lobby: The Awakening

By: Chad Pergram, Fox News

26 December 2009

“This could have been catastrophic,” said Rep. Pete King (R-NY). “Fortunately we were lucky on this one.”



The United States has just dodged another major terrorist attack.

It was eight years ago this week that Richard Reid tried to knock an American Airlines flight out of the sky by igniting explosives in his shoe. And authorities say 23-year-old Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab of Nigeria carried the same malevolent intentions.

Intercepted cell phone calls didn’t foil Abdulmutallab’s attempted terrorist attack. Nor did spy satellite tracking devices, clandestine CIA operatives, a military surge in Iraq, the interrogation of al-Qaida operatives at Guantanamo Bay or efforts to build e a “civil society” in a part of the world that exports terrorists like some nations export electronics.

No. Abdulmutallab’s effort was thwarted the same way Reid’s was: by average, alert, brave people who just happened be sitting close to seat 19A aboard a transatlantic flight.

Pandemonium erupted on board the jet as passengers hurdled seats and tackled Abdulmutallab in the aisle. One burly traveler placed the suspect in a headlock.

These people aren’t Navy Seals engaging a band of pirates off the Horn of Africa. They aren’t Army Rangers raiding a cave in Tora Bora. They are everyman. Butchers, disc jockeys, stockbrokers, truck drivers, housewives, retired grandparents, erotic dancers.

Homeland Security expert often describe police officers, firefighters and paramedics as first responders. That’s accurate. But in the war on terrorism, the true first responders are everyday folks flying overseas, catching a bus or hopping the subway.

“We are forever indebted to the heroic passengers and flight attendants who sought to subdue the suspect,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) in a statement.

The message subsided in the years since September 11th. But Delta flight 253 bound from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day is a stark reminder: the U.S. is at war. And will continue to be so for some time.

Like it or not, we’ve all been deputized for the first line of defense. That’s why New York City subway placards ominously remind riders “If you see something, say something.” The messages often accompany a picture of an unattended duffle bag, stashed underneath a subway bench.

And like the days shortly after 9-11, the days of fear are back.

Let’s face it. Folks grew lax in their vigilance in the years following September 11th. The shoe bomber incident unfolded within months of the strikes in New York and Washington. People were on guard then. But with the exception of last month’s massacre at Fort Hood (where the jury is still out whether the shooter was a terrorist or just someone who flipped his lid), it’s been years since something of this magnitude hit the U.S. Sure, there were attacks in London and Madrid. But over time, many Americans grew inured to the threat. We take off our shoes at the airport. We don’t carry tubes of hand sanitizer on board any more. We wave at the friendly police officer guarding the steps of the U.S. Capitol, a high-powered rifle with a scope strapped across his chest. The reason we endure these exercises is buried in the depths of a consciousness. We know the reason. But in the moment-to-moment reality, we’ve mostly forgotten about what happened.

Christmas was a wakeup call.

Bennie Thompson plans a January hearing to investigate the episode “whether directly related to al Qaeda or not.” The top Republican on that panel, New York’s Pete King, says the syringe-liked device, reportedly taped to Abdulmutallab’s leg, appears to be “something we haven’t seen before.” And King suggests that routine screenings may not have detected what Abdulmutallab was sporting.

Shortly after 9-11 and the shoe bomber, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman half-jokingly suggested that flying naked was the only failsafe method to ensure that someone wouldn’t smuggle a weapon on board. Barring flying au naturale, security officials don’t have many alternatives but to be reactive to each new manner of attack. That’s what prompted the rule three years ago that limited liquids passengers can tote on board. If terrorists next attempt to crash a jetliner using a copy of Sports Illustrated, you can bet security officials will place that publication on a no-fly list. If they try to hijack a plane with a Twizzler, that’ll be off-limits, too. 

The U.S. has been extremely successful in protecting the country from another major attack. American intelligence and military forces have also performed exemplary work eliminating the threat posed by the “old-school” al-Qaeda, capturing and killing many of its leaders and key followers.

In Arabic, “al-Qaeda” means “The Base.” But these days, al-Qaeda is less an organization and more a movement. And now, it has “franchises,” much like a fast food chain. McDonald’s franchisees are encouraged to concoct some of their own dishes. A McDonald’s franchisee in Pittsburgh created with the Big Mac. Another franchise owner in Cincinnati dreamed up the Filet-O-Fish.

Al-Qaeda franchises don’t receive orders from anyone. They’re just expected to invent their own new ways to kill, maim and devastate.

Which is precisely the problem with Abdulmutallab. He reportedly told authorities he has ties to al-Qaeda. But how tenuous are those connections? And with al-Qaeda as a movement, security officials cannot be expected to be 100 percent successful at deducing and then averting every potential method of attack someone can cook up.

More will emerge about the Detroit episode. Bennie Thompson says his January hearing will “get to the bottom” of the incident.

But regardless of the steps Thompson or anyone in government takes, they’re not the ones who can protect the U.S. One of the best defenses are average people. Just like observant passengers who suppressed Richard Reid and Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab.

“Al-Qaeda doesn’t take a holiday. Neither should we,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), the leading Republican on the House Homeland Security panel.

This is the awakening. And the Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit is proof that the battle rages. And it’s just as hot as it was on September 11th.

–         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

–         The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.