THE ARREST Tuesday of three suspects in a plot to carry out bombings in Germany offers crucial lessons about preventing terrorism. Some of those lessons have to do with the tactics of law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. But the most beneficial insight Americans could gain from the German example is that war is the wrong metaphor for a nation's defense against terrorism.
The terrorists may need to tell each other they are killing civilians in the cause of a holy war. But societies that have to protect themselves against Al Qaeda and its offshoots are not at war. And they don't need to act as if they are going to war.
The investigation leading to this week's arrests and the seizure of bomb-making material suggests that the terrorist threat is best countered not by armies, but by meticulous police work, intelligence cooperation, and laws that strike a reasonable balance between civil liberties and the state's obligation to protect the lives of citizens.
German antiterrorist units monitored the alleged plotters for more than six months. Their investigation originated with a warning from American intelligence, which had intercepted e-mails of cell members believed to have been at Al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan.
At a point when the German investigators began to fear the plotters might set off their explosives before the authorities could intervene, the antiterrorist unit took precautionary action. While the suspects under surveillance were away from the site where their 1,500 pounds of hydrogen peroxide were stored, German agents substituted a diluted form of that liquid explosive.
Although German authorities are still pursuing 10 suspects in the bomb plot, and although there remain unanswered questions about the affiliations, targets, and ambitions of the alleged plotters, the way the suspects were identified, monitored, and finally arrested shows what it takes to defend society against terrorism. There was intelligence sharing between American and German agencies; cooperation between intelligence and police organizations in Germany; and prudent lawful actions to preempt a crime before it could be carried out.
Germany's interior minister is now calling for new laws that would permit preemptive detention of suspected militants and allow the government to plant surveillance software in the computers of persons suspected of ties to terrorist groups. In Germany as in the United States, it is for voters and lawmakers to thrash out the proper balance between privacy rights and security. But this should be a debate about how best to cope with a particular type of criminal. It should not be inflated into a metaphor of endless war against an amorphous enemy.