05/10/2010 12:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Times Square: Reaction and Overreaction

The Times Square incident confirms more than it reveals. For it is in the mode of the underwear bomber incident and the Colorado/Queens incident. Together, they form a suggestive pattern from which we can draw a number of inferences.

1. The tangible terrorist threat to the United States, as opposed to the speculative one, is neither acute nor of great magnitude. Al-Qaidi, the original group that organized and executed 9/11, evidently lacks the capacity to deliver anything more than occasional pinpricks. This dog hasn't barked because it can't bark.

2. The same can be said of the loose coalition of radical Islamist organizations that go by various names: the Taliban assemblage and the al-Qaidi franchises. If al-Qaidi itself is deficient, then the others are even less potent.

3. The volunteers who have undertaken recent missions are amateurs who received little training, lacked the skills to do much of anything, and were unknown to our intelligence agencies and to those of other friendly countries. These callow protagonists reinforce the conclusion that the 'terrorist" groups are thankfully lacking in resources -- human and otherwise.

4. Most of them probably are lacking much in the way of motivation to attack the United States, too. The Taliban agenda has always been Afghanistan or Pakistan. Whatever assistance and direction was given to this latest "walk-on" was so meager as to indicate that their agenda and orientation hasn't changed markedly. A target of opportunity presented itself, so some Taliban leader gave it a try. The same can be said for the al-Qaidi spinoffs like AQM or al-Qaidi in North Africa.

5. The now demonstrable fact that some Taliban group(s) would strike our homeland hardly constitutes a surprise requiring a reappraisal of "the enemy." When you have been killing people for eight and half years, it follows that the target may try and kill you -- however half-hearted this attempt. That is human nature -- as we demonstrated when we first went into Afghanistan.

6. Our warring across a large swath of the Islamic world has been conducted largely on the enemies' terrain. This is not a rule that they have agreed to -- whether the Taliban, al-Qaida franchises or, of course, classic al-Qaidi itself, which started it all on 9/11. Shock that large scale violence could lead to violent acts on American soil is a sign of how dissociated from a complicated psycho-political reality we can be. Doesn't Scripture itself say something about reciprocated violence?

7. "Ordinary" Muslims originating from the places under attack by the United States can be expected to volunteer themselves for terrorist acts. Their numbers will be small and the consequences probably not of the first magnitude. The worst prospect is what similarly motivated British Muslims did in the London underground in 2005 -- very nasty indeed. In fact, on a par with routine occurrences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

8. It is conceivable that the gravest danger we face, although itself a low probability one, is that one or two mature, U.S. based or U.S. present persons with exceptional skills and will are motivated to do something truly serious. They would not be confused young drifters. They could act on their own, unaffiliated with any of the aforementioned groups. In truth, we have no or little ability to anticipate and neutralize such a threat.

9. The Department of Homeland Security remains a minimally competent mess. Our counter terrorism apparatus overall has dismaying flaws. Fixing them will not guarantee protection against the threat noted above; but it is still prudent to come to grips with the problem before the first books appear with the title: America's War on Terror: The First Decade.

10. This latest infringement of American territorial immunity is sparking a mildly hysterical reaction. The spontaneous hysteria has been intensified by politicians -- including those in and around the White House -- playing to the crowd. Its most pernicious manifestation is an aggressive campaign to coerce the Pakistani army into an all-out assault on North Waziristan (where Mr. Faisal Shahzad allegedly received some form of instruction). A battery of senior American officials have bluntly told Islamabad that if they don't evict the Taliban, any al-Qaidi detritus and perhaps the forces of Gulbuddin Hikmeryar too, Washington will send in its Special Forces and other elite units. A more reasoned analysis, though, leads to the judgment that any such dramatic escalation would be highly counter-productive. One, it is a mission impossible given the extent of the Islamist networks in the region and the availability of other havens -- e.g. Baluchistan and Karachi, not to speak of those abroad. Two, it would inflame anti-American animus throughout the country. Punjabi based radical Islamists would have a recruiting field day, creating a threat to the current government's stability and raising the specter of a full-scale insurrection. If we are really worried about the disposition of Pakistani nuclear weapons, that is the last thing you want to happen. Weighing this latter menace in the balance against the risk of another Shahzad, it is frankly hard to see how a responsible government would not temper its current overheated impulses.

Three, the crude logic that on whomever's soil a would-be terrorist gets 'training' is a legitimate target for American intimidation and/or occupation points to a nightmare of endless interventions. We could wind up chasing Islamists across much of Asia. Do we really want to find ourselves in 2020 launching strikes against militant Muslims in Mindanao -- where we got our start in counter-insurgency 110 years ago? After only fifteen years there, we did get control of 'Moroland' -- if that is any consolation.