Following the predictable Washington post-disaster pattern of shock, outrage, finger-pointing and sacrificial head-rolling, we are accelerating quickly past finger-pointing and on to the guillotine less than two weeks after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab lit his pants on fire aboard Detroit-bound Northwest Flight 253.

News shows and print commentary involved in this twisted, unproductive parlor game have placed their bets on Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Most people assume that the airport screening layer in the system failed on Christmas Day, probably because that is the most visible part of our security system. But that assumption overlooks a layered system that now mitigates most threats. It directs bad people and bad things where we want them by reducing the weapons and useable materials available to them and limiting their concealment options.

For example, Abdulmutallab’s only option for hiding a bomb was in his briefs. What he could smuggle aboard – not in shoes, a jacket, a carry-on, in liquid containers – ignited but did not explode. And according to a one Dutch official, this contraption may not have been a bomb at all but merely a glorified firecracker.

Many pundits and critics consider us lucky that Northwest Flight 253 escaped catastrophe. But was it merely luck?  Although not politically or publicly acceptable, at this point we should admit that parts of the airport screening system worked as intended by way of risk mitigation.

Of course, each layer of our system can be improved to reduce risk. We’ve known about the body-bomb and suicide bombers for years. Yet, modesty and pseudo-privacy claims have stalled the technology deployment that could further mitigate the risk of suicide bombers.

This incident provides yet another wake up call to improve our national security system. It is fairly obvious that key layers of the national security system did not work. But many of those elements are out of the control of DHS, for example watch-listing, information sharing about terror suspects, and revoking visas.

No one died and other than a pair of hot pants, there were no major injuries. Airplanes continued to fly, and people and cargo continued to move immediately following the attack. These are key criteria to consider when measuring the robustness of our security system.

Unfortunately, scape-goats and sacrificial offerings are a political reality. Misstatements and obviously unrealistic proclamations about our national security system designed to insight public confidence only erodes that confidence. But after punishing leaders for rhetoric gaffes, we may discover that head-rolling won’t fix what needs to be fixed. And when we are attacked again, and we will be, we run the risk that heads may roll – literally.

Jeff Sural serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP. He will focus his practice on homeland security and transportation matters on Capitol Hill and in federal government agencies. Read More