Alert citizens, old-fashioned police work pay off in NYC

Much has been made of the bumbling nature of the attempted car bomber in New York's Times Square and innuendo is repeated endlessly about the suspect nearly slipping away to Dubai.

The bomber's ineptitude produced, if not a dud, at least a fizzle of a bomb.

But people should remember how many things went right in a very short amount of time.

For our side.

Terrorists may not have terrified us but they sure have made us more alert and infinitely more likely to take action when suspicious.

A Vietnam War veteran who sold T-shirts in Times Square, and another who sold pocketbooks, plus others who worked the area, alerted a mounted policeman to the oddity of a smoking SUV at the curb.

Soon, the massive police forces of New York descended on the scene.

The SUV was scoured for its vehicle identification number, foiling an attempt to disguise it. The previous owner was tracked down. The source of the stolen license tag was found.

Camera shots of Times Square were analyzed and some pictures good enough to use were found. A suspect was identified and his name immediately placed on a do-not-fly list.

An alert ticket agent's suspicions were aroused by a cash customer for an airline ticket.

Before the airplane left the gate, a suspect had been taken into custody; then, after the plane had begun to leave the gate area it was called back so two more men could be questioned. They were later released.

Only 54 hours passed between the bomb being found and a suspect being put behind bars.

"I was expecting you. Are you NYPD or FBI?" Faisal Shahzad asked customs officials who came aboard the jet to arrest him, according to The Associated Press.

Federal authorities say Shahzad has hardly stopped talking since being taken into custody.

The no-fly list is fairly modern and the Times Square cameras are more or less recent additions, but it seems it was mostly old-fashioned but hurried police work combined with a sharp-eyed citizenry that brought the bomb plot to a close.

Time was when taking off your shoes at airports or passing through magnetic devices in office buildings was cause for little jokes and maybe even a grump or two.

Not so much anymore.

Like most Europeans and others in the developing world, we take these safety devices pretty much for granted.

The events of last weekend might make us add a word we hadn't anticipated: gratitude.

We are in neither a Brave New World nor a 1984 scenario. Big Brother is not watching us.

Of course we are right to preserve our privacy where possible, even when it is inconvenient for law enforcement officers.

Being scanned and our possessions searched does not come naturally to us. And certainly defects occur in any system, as the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy found when being denied permission to get on airplanes because someone with the same name was on the no-fly list.

But so far as intrusion is concerned, we have much more to fear at our home computers from dishonest people than on the sidewalk from the police.

Yes, we're paying something for this added protection.

This week, we'd have to say it was worth it.