Surely you've heard that question asked many times over the past decade. Before we all get lost in election-year political recriminations over the Christmas Day terrorism attack, let's note that there was a hero to this story who hasn't gotten as much credit as he deserves:
Based on current news reports, Umaru Abdul Mutallab, father of terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, did everything but take out an ad in the Washington Post
to let American authorities know that his son needed watching. Months before the 23-year-old Nigerian tried to blow himself up and take down a jet over Detroit, his father warned officials that the young man might be dangerous.
CNN put it this way:
Here's Fox News:
"He told officials he believed his son was under the influence of religious extremists and had traveled from London, England, to Yemen."
"Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab abruptly told his family he would abandon the life that took him from a $25,000-a-year private school in Togo to a degree at an illustrious London university. That message pushed his father, a prominent banker from Nigeria's Muslim-dominated north, to contact state security officials and later the U.S. Embassy in hopes of someone bringing home his missing son.
" 'We provided them with all the information required of us to enable them do this,' a family statement read Monday, without elaborating."
And from the New York Times:
"Mr. Mutallab visited the embassy on Nov. 19 and told officials his son had been radicalized, was missing and might be in Yemen, said a State Department spokesman, P. J. Crowley. Mr. Crowley said that Mr. Mutallab did not say he believed his son planned to attack Americans, but that he expressed general concern about his radical views."
Who is the father? Here's an account on ModernGhana.com
"Dr. Umaru Abdul Muttalab is chairman of the Nigeria's first Islamic Bank, Jaiz Bank International Plc, which was established in 2003. He has over 30 years experience in developmental, commercial and merchant banking. One of his co-directors at the bank is Nigeria's minister for petroleum resources & former secretary of OPEC, Dr. Rilwanu Lukman."
So what do we think we know about the father? He's a Muslim, one sophisticated enough in the technical aspects of Islamic law to run an Islamic bank. And he was willing to put himself, his reputation and the rest of his family at risk by letting American authorities know that his son had been radicalized.
At risk? No doubt. I imagine that crossing al-Qaeda is something like crossing the Mafia. Particularly if you live in a country where sheer numbers -- 75 percent of Nigerians are Muslim (I'm finding a range of estimates, but I'll now defer to several commenters who say the figure is more like 50 percent.) -- make it at least somewhat likely that someone sympathetic to al-Qaeda is in the neighborhood.
That the information from Muttalab was not used by intelligence officials to its best advantage is hardly his fault. And that he was hoping the information would be used to get his son safely returned to the family does not diminish his deed. As a headline on a commentary
in the Nigerian newspaper This Day
"Mutallab: Profile in Courage"
Look, I'm not trying to canonize the guy. It's not like he gave the date and time of his son's planned attack. And it may be that the facts eventually will unroll differently than as portrayed in the early accounts. But the reports so far have been pretty consistent.
And we're still left with a terrible problem for a free and multicultural society: Even though 99.999 percent of Muslims abhor attacks on innocent civilians on moral and theological grounds, 100 percent of attempted terrorist attacks on the U.S. (and, with the exception of the Basques in Spain, terrorists attacks on all Western nations) since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing have been committed by people claiming to act in the name of Islam.[CORRECTION TO THIS. SEE BELOW.]
What do we do about that? How should that factor into our security screening procedures? Whatever your position on those questions, there can be no argument that that our best defense is people like Muttalab -- Muslims willing to step forward and issue a timely warning.
If Americans publicly honor Mutallab's act -- a high-profile word or two of thanks by President Obama might be in order -- we can send a signal to the many, many like-minded Muslims around the world that we appreciate what they can do to keep all of us safer.
:I stupidly broke one of my own writing rules there: Do not use an absolute unless you are absolutely, positively certain beyond any and all doubt. As sure as you use the words "never" or "always," or "100 percent" someone will provide an exception. Glenn Greenwald on Salon.com provides several.
I could quibble with some of his list or engage in some rhetorical dance about the definition of terrorism or try a numbers game about whether I was almost right or not. But the truth is, mine was a needless and incorrect reach that was not necessary to make my point. Which is that there are many more Muslims who oppose terror compared to the relatively few, very dangerous people who would use that faith to justify the murder of innocents. And it behooves us to do what we can to appreciate when those in the larger group do what they can to shut down the violence in spite of the potential consequences to themselves. I will surely make other mistakes down the road, but I will probably not repeat this one any time soon.]