The latest turn in the nation’s confrontation with terrorism comes to us as opera buffa. The scenario would be comic if it were not so unnerving.

In New York, law enforcement authorities have begun laying out a chilling case against a legal immigrant from Afghanistan who lived in Queens. Najbullah Zazi allegedly received terrorist training in Pakistan, returned to the United States through John F. Kennedy Airport, traveled to the Denver area and, in the days leading up to the eighth anniversary of 9/11, amassed a stockpile of readily available chemicals — basic beauty supplies — and returned to New York in an apparent plot to commit murder and mayhem.

Suspicious plans of a less advanced nature have been uncovered in Texas and in Illinois, but the New York case appears to be the single most serious terrorism plot dismantled since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The components of the bomb Zazi was allegedly assembling were the same as those used in the 2005 London train bombings and in the 2001 “shoe bomb” plot by Richard Reid, according to court documents prosecutors filed in New York.

Meanwhile, even as the FBI, New York police and others were doing the jobs we fully expect of them, Washington was playing an idiotic parlor game.

At issue is the fate of President Obama’s much-trumpeted decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year after his taking office — that is, about four months from now. The prison festers as a legacy of the Bush administration’s use of roundups and detentions without evidence, torture and other abuses of law that has made it difficult to get even those detainees the U.S. government already has determined to be innocent released and repatriated to their home countries — or anywhere else.

Much political clucking is heard over a single footnote in the shameful narrative of Guantanamo: Was it a mistake for the new president to pledge a shuttering of the camp within a year? Which staff member is to blame?

Who cares?

The unfolding Zazi case tells you everything about why Guantanamo has been a failure. It shows how rancid are the politics of terrorism on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have stripped money out of military spending measures that would have been used for the closure. They also have vowed, with great gusts of indignation, that no detainee who has ever been held at Guantanamo (none has actually been tried and convicted of terrorism) shall ever — ever — be imprisoned in the United States. Nor, says a proposal introduced by Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, shall any detainee who ever was held at Guantanamo be moved to U.S. soil, even to be sheltered in supermax prisons where terrorists have long been in residence.

At the moment, Zazi is being held at a federal lockup in Brooklyn — the jail is hardly set upon a barren plain. His court appearances will be in the Brooklyn federal courthouse, in a neighborhood where from certain vantage points there is a stunning view of the Lower Manhattan skyline, no longer punctuated by the Twin Towers. New Yorkers do not quiver at his mere presence beneath many layers of security.

If Zazi and any others are convicted of conspiring to commit a heinous terrorist act, they would be incarcerated somewhere in the federal prison system. It already holds 215 inmates with convictions related to international terrorism and 124 convicted domestic terrorists. Among those in custody are Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “blind sheik” who orchestrated the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and who plotted to blow up New York City landmarks, bridges and tunnels. The shoe-bomber Reid also is in the capable hands of the Bureau of Prisons, as are Theodore (The Unabomber) Kaczynski and Terry Nichols, a conspirator in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.

The political chatter about Guantanamo never illuminates the truth. Only a handful of those ever taken there posed a serious threat to the United States, records show. The prison camp is no necessity but a continued impediment to rational discourse about terrorism.

And it is an insult to the law enforcement officials who deliver us from the real dangers and lock up terrorists without causing a foreign policy crisis or providing grist for political games.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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