CHARLIE'S MOMENT : USE IT or LOSE IT

WALL STREET JOURNAL 

We have one chance to make national security work.

Aquestion on everyone’s mind now is: After the Charlie Hebdo marches end, after the speeches stop, then what? What will the West’s governments do to protect their people?

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, has now said—via a formal, 11-minute video—that it planned and financed the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

This AQAP video is properly understood as a recruitment commercial for the Yemen-based organization. The terror group is advertising itself to young recruits in Europe and America, essentially the way the Marine Corps does with TV commercials during football games. AQAP is looking for a few good murderers.

Al Qaeda is in competition with ISIS for market dominance in the terror space. Which means both groups are likely to compete on the basis of bragging rights for more acts of terror in Western cities, that is, more Charlie Hebdos will be planned and financed on both sides of the Atlantic.

So what are we going to do?

What will happen is this: François Hollande, David Cameron and Angela Merkel will convene meetings at large mahogany tables with their ministers and secretaries, and each of them will say out loud that more must be done.

These senior officials will go back to their departments, and they will hold the same meeting with another set of officials. This process—meet, announce, commit—will be repeated until the thousands of occupants in each office in every hallway in all the world’s relevant agencies have heard that something must be done.

It won’t be enough.

No amount of meetings, speeches or white papers on the terrorist threat, no matter how sincere, will change the fact that all these governments will hand responsibility for the execution of any antiterror strategies to their bureaucracies.

“Bureaucracy,” a satirist might point out, is a French word. “Bureau” means “desk.” In all the photos published of al Qaeda, Islamic State or any other terror groups, have you ever seen them sitting at desks?

The 9/11 Commission Report, published in 2004, said: “Imagination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies.” The 9/11 Report urged, however, that we should try to make the “exercise of imagination” routine inside the bureaucracies.

Instead, the French admitted after the Hebdo slaughter that their security services had dropped surveillance of the Kouachi brothers for lack of “resources.”

At the security meetings U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder attended in Paris the weekend of the marches, officials discussed a proposal that would require airlines to share the names of passengers with the governments of the European Union. But that plan needs to be adopted not only by the EU’s 28 member states but by the European Parliament, which has 751 elected members. The EU parliament’s civil-liberties committees voted the idea down in 2013.

Rather than rally and lead the U.S. security bureaucracies, the contribution of the Obama White House after Charlie Hebdo was to announce it would revive an already canceled summit meeting on something called Combating Violent Extremism, or CVE. A Politico story on the CVE summit said some specialists think the proposal “is distributed across too many government agencies, none of whom are accountable for its success.”

Meanwhile, the AQAP and ISIS recruits in Europe or the U.S. hop a plane to Turkey, transit to a terrorist training camp, pick up some killing techniques and fly back home to do it. Whatever else, their terror system is efficient.

Bureaucracies are unavoidable. But unless we focus on making our national-security bureaucracies function, as the 9/11 Commission described a decade ago, the West will slide into a depressing accommodation with Hebdo-like death. In turn that will produce—indeed, it already has produced—an increasingly intense, desperate, chaotic and demagogic politics in the liberal democracies. That, too, may be counted a victory for radical Islam.

Security bureaucracies fail when they are confused about their mission or lack confidence in the support of their political leadership, or even of the citizens of the country they are supposed to protect.

Do they have that support now? The millions in Paris who chanted, “Je suis Charlie” suggest the possibility of solidarity for an effective, coordinated response to Islamic terror.

Against that, though, one can cite the political rancor and doubts in 2013 over the U.S. National Security Agency’s metadata collections and the Feinstein committee’s recent jeremiad on the CIA’s enhanced interrogations after 9/11. Europe’s elites, meanwhile, allowed the idea of tolerance to be transformed over many years from a liberal value into a dangerous fetish.

Then when a Charlie Hebdo happens, the political and intellectual elites who were carping yesterday assume that their national-security bureaucracies will catch terrorists tomorrow. That is a false, dangerous assumption.

There is little mention here of the American president or his “no show” because it is pointless. He inhabits his own cloud. The Paris slaughter is a psychological turning point and strategic opportunity for the rest of us. Use it or lose it.

Write to henninger@wsj.com.