We're grateful for plain old cops. What a relief that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who could be mistaken for Inspector Clouseau, was not in charge of the search for the Times Square bomber. The mayor, he told NBC News, was looking for "a homegrown," someone protesting health care reform legislation. Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, was looking into "a man-caused disaster," not terrorism, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was on the scout for someone to listen to his Miranda rights.
Everyone who hasn't slept through the past decade realizes that this is no time for euphemism and fudging the identities and motivations of the people who are trying to kill us all. We don't know exactly what went on in the head of Faisal Shahzad, but we can enjoy imagining a little of the terror he felt when the pilot of his Dubai-bound airliner announced that he was returning to the gate, where cops were waiting.
We can celebrate the excellent police work, but we nevertheless must acknowledge what such terrorists accomplish even when their schemes fail. When they can't ignite a bomb, they nevertheless undercut our sense of security and inspire us to do things that detract from who we are. Failed attempts at terrorism lead to self-censorship, and we give up a little more of our freedoms. Few of us complain any longer about confiscated cosmetics or shampoo at the airport. Long security lines are taken in stride.
But the Islamists keep pushing us to do more. In their primitive desire to impose law from the Stone Age, they succeed in increasing restrictions on the free and easy life we take for granted and they despise. The network Comedy Central, infamous for its irreverent satire poking fun at (nearly) everybody, spiked an episode of "South Park" that took a soft poke at the late Prophet Muhammad after a little prophet named Abu Talhah al-Amrikee warned that the creators of "South Park" could meet the fate of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch director murdered by an Islamist terrorist over his movie about the Islamic abuse of women.
But you don't need a fatwa on your head to be scared. Fear stalks even the Pentagon. The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist, was first invited to a prayer service at the Pentagon and then disinvited when certain Muslim officers there remembered that he had once described Islam as "an evil religion." This was harsh but no more than many other preachers have said from their pulpits, but you never know who might be carrying a beheading knife. The frightened generals submitted.
We're told to be on the lookout for terrorists - and it was an alert street vendor who noticed the bomber's car in Times Square - but we must be alert as well to overreacting to our fears. The Clinton White House ordered the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, making it a parking lot for the Secret Service, and the ignominy of such a surrender was accepted passively as the price of life in Washington. So are the ugly barriers around such national icons as the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument.
The newest affront is the most symbolic. The Supreme Court itself ordered the front doors of that sunlit white marble monument to justice closed. Visitors now must use a side entrance and thus are deprived of walking up the majestic 44 steps to the bronze doors under the promise, engraved in marble, of "Equal Justice Under Law." The architectural metaphor for access to equal justice under the law is narrowed as a visitor enters on a lower level and mounts a dreary staircase, an exercise in political paranoia rather than pride in transparent justice.
A decade ago, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a shrill advocacy group, demanded that an image of Muhammad be erased from a marble frieze on the facade of the building, where it honored the prophet as one of the 18 lawgivers in the court's pantheon of justice. CAIR objected because the prophet was depicted with a sword. The court refused then but surrenders to fear this time. Just two of the nine justices dissented from the court's scurrying to security behind new, bigger and uglier barriers.
Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg understand the significance of the closure. Taking note that no other court in the world has succumbed to fear, even when facing "security concerns equal to or greater than ours," they wrote that "the significance of the Court's front entrance extends beyond its design and function. To many members of the public, this Court's main entrance and front steps are not only a means to, but also a metaphor for, access to the Court itself." I couldn't have said it better myself.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.