We should be feeling safer right now. British officials appear to have foiled a plot to blow up as many as 10 U.S.-bound passenger jets with liquid explosives hidden in carry-on luggage. Another batch of alleged operatives has been discovered and taken out of commission. Several thousand men, women and children did not die ghastly deaths over the Atlantic Ocean. "This," said Republican Congressman Christopher Shays when the arrests of 24 suspects was announced last week, "was a good day."
Then why did it feel so bad? Why did a bullet dodged feel like the beginning of something and not the end? Minutes after the news broke, counterterrorist experts popped up on TV screens like Pez dispensers to remind us that our homeland-security system is ill equipped to stop the kind of attack the suspected London bombers were said to be planning. President George W. Bush warned against false comfort, saying although he believes the U.S. is more secure than it was before 9/11, "we're still not completely safe." Worst of all, the Brits, who can normally be counted on to snuff out hysterics, warned that we had narrowly avoided "mass murder on an unimaginable scale."
The sense of dread can be attributed in equal parts to the identities of the suspects (24 men and women believed to have been born in Britain, one of whom has already been released without charge), to the supposed imminence of the attacks and to their purported targets: more planes falling out of the sky. But our collective shudder is by now practically instinctive. Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have conditioned ourselves to spike every triumph in the struggle against terrorism with a shot of anxiety. Try as we might to secure the perimeter, we walk in the shadow of risk. "This is the story of terrorist threats," says Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism analyst at the Rand Corp. "We close up one set of vulnerabilities, and they attempt to exploit another."
Our triumph last week was muted because it was also a test--a test of our understanding of terrorism. Do we continue to react reflexively to each new scheme, regardless of the probability of the threat and the feasibility of preventing it? Or do we have an honest discussion about risk and the costs of safety? After the discovery of the liquid-bomb plot, does it make sense to funnel billions more dollars into new machines that can detect liquid explosives, even though the past three sizable attacks pulled off by Islamic terrorists in major metropolises have been on trains in Madrid, London and Bombay? Banning cologne from planes and testing bottles of baby formula for explosives may make us feel proactive, but are we being smarter? "We can't just radically shift our strategy every time there's an event," Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), tells TIME. "The key is balance and constantly looking at the entire landscape."