- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2006

On the week of a holiday that used to stir patriotic emotions — the Fourth of July — it has been painful to see examples of how little remains of that glue that holds a society together.

Perhaps the worst of these signs of national disintegration was the New York Times’ recent revealing to the whole world the covert methods by which the U.S. government has tracked money that finances international terrorism.

The usual excuses about “the public’s right to know” ring even hollower than usual in this case. The public was not dying to know how their lives were safeguarded. Only the terrorists were helped by these revelations.

Americans may in fact be dying literally now because of what the terrorists have been told — and ultimately because a jerk inherited the New York Times. As usual, the mainstream media circled the wagons around one of their own. The media spin is that the terrorists were already bound to know we were monitoring their international transfers of money. The Times says terrorists had to “suspect” this.

This is an all-or-nothing argument. There are vast numbers of terrorists around the world, not all of them affiliated with the same organizations. Nor is there any reason to believe they all have the same level of knowledge or sophistication.

Whatever knowledge or suspicions some terrorist leaders may have had about American surveillance of money transfers that finance their operations, that does not mean all the terrorists knew about all the methods or about all the countries cooperating to track them down by their money trails. After all, so many of these terrorists would not have been captured or killed if they were infallible.

The media may not publicize the casualties we inflict on the terrorists but they are vastly greater than the casualties terrorists inflict on Americans, though too many in the media focus almost exclusively on the latter.

Not only do the terrorists now know how they are tracked, some countries that have secretly helped in that tracking may back off from helping, now that the Times’ revelations can create internal political problems or fear of terrorist retaliation.

The all-or-nothing idea that secrets are either secret from everybody or secret from nobody will not stand up under scrutiny. During World War II, the Chicago Tribune made the devastating revelation that the United States had broken the Japanese code and could read their military plans in advance.

This was an enormously important secret, especially during the early days of the war, when Japan had overwhelming naval superiority in the Pacific and was seeking to destroy the remnants of the American Pacific fleet that had not already been destroyed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Fortunately for this country, the Japanese did not read the Chicago Tribune or did not believe it. In other words, the secret was out, but it was not out very far. There are degrees of secrecy, as with everything else.

New York Times has spread the secret of American financial surveillance of terrorists around the world, undermining or destroying this method of tracking them, as well as undermining the cooperation that can be expected in the future from countries fearful of political or terrorist repercussions.

Patriotism is not chic among those who assume the role of citizens of the world, whether discussing immigration or giving aid and comfort to the enemy in wartime.

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire was as much due to the internal disintegration of the ties that bind a society together as to the assaults of the Romans’ external enemies. The pride of being a Roman citizen was destroyed by cheapening that citizenship by giving it to too many other people. The sense of duty and loyalty eroded among both the elites and the masses.

Without such things, there could be no Roman Empire. Ultimately, without such things, there can be no United States of America. In neither case have tangible wealth and power been enough to save a country or a civilization, for the tangibles do not work without the intangibles.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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