The big news in Washington this week has nothing to do with George W. Bush or John F. Kerry – and everything to do with Al Qaeda. The Department of Homeland Security has upgraded the alert status to orange (“high alert”) in Manhattan, Northern New Jersey and Washington, D.C. For once, however, the feds have something specific for the public – warnings that terrorists want to target financial institutions, ranging from Citibank to the Federal Reserve Board.

The news hasn’t had much of an effect in Washington. The city’s mayor has assured one and all that local police are on the case (I’m not sure that creates a lot of confidence, but it’s better than the alternative) and the feds also have made it clear that they will try to foil would-be bombers without utterly wrecking people’s daily routines. Meanwhile, the rest of us proceed as before, keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior, but not necessarily lying awake at night, fearing the worst.

The news seems credible. After all, Al Qaeda repeatedly has expressed a desire to cripple the American economy through vivid acts of slaughter. But the plan indicates that the terror network has a huge blind spot when it comes to the spirit of American people.

We’re not like the Spaniards, who ran in fear after the Madrid bombings in March. American businesses got smart after September 11th. They learned to disperse key personnel and equipment and to create redundant facilities and databases. Even if bombers were to hit a major bank headquarters, they wouldn’t destroy the resources upon which the financial institutions depend. They would kill innocents and wreck property – and in so doing, would re-ignite national rage against terror and force ambivalent allies (including the French) to place themselves firmly in our corner. In short, any attack would produce a short term victory at the cost of Al Qaeda’s annihilation.

Terrorists may feel tempted to strike at a time when Democrats and Republicans are squabbling about which party best can subdue Islamist killers, but they would do well to resist the impulse to kill. History teaches that Americans, when aroused, fight with unmatched spirit, enterprise, ferocity and skill. If Usama bin Laden didn’t learn that in Afghanistan, he surely will learn it if and when he attacks again.

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