But a multibillion-dollar government security system failed. The question now: Is the Obama administration smart enough to go to school on this attack? Among the lessons that need to be learned are these:
Real security means looking for terrorists - not for weapons. In this case, it should have been easy: Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, a prominent Nigerian banker, alerted U.S. Embassy officials that his son, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had become radicalized. That ought to have led to the revocation of Abdulmuttalab's multiple-entry visa to the U.S., his inclusion on the "no-fly" list or, at the very least, to thorough screening before he was allowed to board a plane bound for Detroit.
More broadly: Does looking for terrorists rather than weapons mean we need to profile? Yes, but we're not talking about racial profiling, we're talking about terrorist profiling - identifying the characteristics, behavioral patterns and background that terrorists often share.
For example, it has been reported that Abdulmutallab paid cash for his ticket and checked no baggage. Surely, that should have raised suspicions and prompted someone to question him. A 23-year-old planning to die on Christmas Day 2009 may not have come up with a great answer when asked about his plans for 2010.
It's reasonable to assume that anyone who has spent time in countries where terrorists are known to train and operate represents an increased risk. Abdulmutallab was in Yemen from August to early December 2009, according to the Yemeni government. How difficult would it have been for authorities to learn this?
Terrorism is not a criminal justice matter; it is a weapon of asymmetric warfare. No one has been more persuasive and eloquent on this issue than Andrew C. McCarthy, who was America's most successful anti-terrorism prosecutor: It was he who locked up the Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman, and other perpetrators of the first World Trade Center bombing. But McCarthy came to realize that even the toughest lawyers cannot win a war against determined terrorist organizations (e.g. al-Qaeda and Hezbollah) and regimes (e.g. Iran's rulers).
As McCarthy explains in his landmark book, "Willful Blindness," we accept a certain level of criminal activity within American society. We realize that some criminals will escape punishment because their guilt cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Viewing terrorism through this same prism, however, means accepting that planes will be blown up and that other forms of mass casualty violence - bio-terrorism, Fort Hood-style massacres, dirty bomb attacks - also will occur; that terrorists can never be aggressively interrogated even if hundreds of lives depend on the information they might reveal; and that some terrorists will be allowed to walk, to rejoin the jihad, to thumb their noses at the families of their victims; and that we will never make a serious attempt to defeat those waging war against us.
We can't make ourselves inoffensive to militant Islamists. President Barack Obama's Cairo speech, his outreach to Iran's ruling mullahs, his pledge to close Guantanamo, his ban on coercive interrogations, his multi-cultural family history - none of this has had the slightest impact on those dedicated to waging holy war against what they see as the "Satanic" West.
Our enemies have many grievances from our support of Israel to our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan to our laissez-faire attitudes toward women and homosexuals. Nothing we do to appease them will be enough because what they really want is to humiliate, defeat and dominate us. They say that clearly.
To take just one example, on Dec. 28, "al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula" posted a statement on the jihadi Web site Shumukh Al-Islam. It claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day attack and promised more terrorism to come. The statement added: "We will continue in this path, Allah willing, until we reach our goal so that religion is all Allah's."
Is that really so hard to understand?
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.