May 19, 2002

AN UNSERIOUS PEOPLE FACE A SERIOUS THREAT, UNSERIOUSLY :

'I Sniff Some Politics' : Bitter about the capital storm, Bush needs to get over his anger and give up his love of secrecy and surprise (Howard Fineman, May 19, 2002, NEWSWEEK)
If Bush seemed unsure of his bearings, he had reason to be. After eight months of political calm, the war on terror abroad has turned into an uncivil war at home. Until last week, the capital was full of urgent but murky bureaucratic debates about the quality of counterterrorism information-sharing. Now, suddenly, Democrats, investigators and the news media were asking the hoary Nixonian questions: what did the president know and when did he know it? And they were asking new but equally dramatic ones: With years’ worth of scattered but numerous hints of Al Qaeda’s emerging suicide strategy, why didn’t Bush know more? And why weren’t people told after September 11 what the administration knew before that fateful day?

In this new Question Time, Bush has the benefit of a bond with the American people, who, for the most part, seem to hope that he will succeed. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, his approval rating is 73 percent, still a lofty number. Yet voters are highly critical of other parts of his administration (the CIA, FBI and his own security team). By a 55 to 38 percent margin, they think the administration should have issued a public hijacking warning before September 11. By a 68 to 24 percent margin, they want a congressional investigation of intelligence failures. And voters’ skepticism even extends to Bush on one crucial subject. Asked if he had done all he “should have” with the pre-9-11 warnings, voters said yes—but by only a 48 to 39 percent margin.


The President of the United States has to take the blame when a screw-up as massive as the 9-11 attacks occurs. We were obviously unprepared for such an attack, despite it being speculated about quite frequently in popular fiction, and we had sufficient warning signals that someone should have been able to put enough pieces together to at least request authority to take some action.

But, let's not kid ourselves here, said authority would have been denied, whether by the President to subordinates or by Congress to the Executive. Even after the attacks we still maintain the honorable but possibly suicidal policy that there's something wrong with racial profiling. Given what we knew prior to 9-11 the logical step would have been to investigate any Arab, or other Middle Easterner, who was taking flying lessons. This may or may not be inconsistent with the Constitution, but it is absolutely inconsistent with the prevailing political atmosphere, which requires even law enforcement officials who know better to deny the efficacy of such profiling.

Next, we could have banned all carry-on luggage and required hand searching of all checked bags. We're not doing this now either, so there's obviously no way people would have tolerated it prior to 9-11.

We could have put armed soldiers, sailors, National Guardsmen, etc. in every cockpit on every flight in America. We don't even have air marshals on board eight months later.

We could have required non-citizens to go through special boarding procedures before flying in commercial planes. Yeah, right.

We could have done any number of things like this, each of which impinges on civil liberties to a greater or lesser extent and each of which we have refused to do even after the murder of 3000 fellow citizens has focussed our attention and scared and angered us all. This redounds to our credit in terms of showing that we take such liberties seriously, but also suggests that an attack like that of 9-11 is a price we're willing to pay in order to maintain these liberties. And, before we get carried away with self-congratulations, it also suggests that there are certain inconveniences we just won't tolerate, even if they might save lives and prevent future attacks.

Instead of recognizing this, Democrats, pundits, and bloggers are insisting, with that hindsight which is notoriously 20/20, that had we all been warned prior to 9-11, America would have responded with a seriousness of purpose that might have thwarted the attacks. Such is the delusion, let's look at the reality.

Here is how such folk responded to a post-9-11 warning that is probably not dissimilar to one that could have been issued pre-9-11 :

Dem senators lambaste vague terrorism warning (Noelle Straub, October 31, 2001, The Hill)(via Free Republic)

Senate Democrats criticized the Bush administration Tuesday for its warning that another terrorist attack could come in the next week, without giving any specifics.

'As if we're not on high alert already,' Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said after Director of the Office of Homeland Security Tom Ridge briefed Senate Democrats. 'It provokes its own level of panic.'

On Monday, Attorney General John Ashcroft cited “credible” information to indicate there would be new terrorist attacks within the United States or abroad in the next week. But he said he could not identify specific targets or the type of attacks.

Dodd said many of his colleagues questioned Ashcroft’s action. 'What the hell are you saying this for? We all know this is a pretty precarious time.'

Sen. Richard Durbin (Ill.) said the Democratic Caucus wants to be as cautious as the administration but wondered whether that kind of vague warning would only “create more fear and anxiety.”

'“I think we have to caution the administration to be careful,” Durbin said. “They can only do this so many times before they lose their credibility'”


That, mind you, is the response after we'd been attacked. Imagine for a moment that it is August 2001 and John Ashcroft--the fanatical Christian Warrior of Democrat and libertarian caricature--steps up to the microphone and says we're being threatened by Muslims, so he needs to use racial profiling techniques for awhile, needs approval for a vast array of electronic surveillance regimes, etc., etc., etc.... The notion that we would have buckled down and become a kind of citizen militia, alert to the threat and ready to act, may be comforting, but it is also ridiculous. Democrats would have begun impeachment proceedings that day.

Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps we really have become the kind of country, like Israel, for which the prevention of terrorist acts is the primary concern. Perhaps we've reached a point where all it would take is a credible warning from the Feds and we'd all be willing to sacrifice liberties, tax dollars, and convenience in order to thwart an attack. (It seems worth noting that Israel--despite its superior intelligence services, more alert citizenry, and more violent responses--has had fairly little success in stopping suicide bombers, even though the terrorists use the same methods over and over and over again. But assume that we might have some limited success if we at least prepared ourselves.) Well, here's our opportunity to prove ourselves :

WE'RE READY (NILES LATHEM and ANDY GELLER, May 19, 2002, NY Post)

The United States has intercepted a new series of frightening messages that suggest al Qaeda is planning a second wave of attacks that would be as big or bigger than Sept. 11 and cause vast numbers of American casualties.

The messages, which are not specific, have come to light amid the furor that has erupted over a parallel series of communications that were received before Sept. 11 and were so vague that U.S. officials couldn't connect the dots.

The latest messages indicate al Qaeda is planning an operation possibly larger in scope than Sept. 11.


Okay, so if we follow the fictional assumptions that are being made about how we would have reacted pre-9-11 to such a warning, we are now required to respond to this one as if we accept that a new attack is imminent. We know several methods that terrorists have successfully used here in America in the past ten years : truck bombs (Oklahoma City and the first WTC attack), highjackings; and anthrax (regardless of whether this was an al Qaeda attack or an opportunist). And operating on the assumption that what we can imagine we should be prepared for, here are a couple of prospective lines of attack that seem entirely plausible.

There will be 13 Major League Baseball games either ending or beginning around 4pm today--it seems like you could truck bomb all thirteen stadiums without too much trouble. You''d not only kill thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, you'd bring the American pastime to its knees. Massive death and great symbolic value--seems like a good target.

Or you could bomb the bridges and tunnels leading into NYC (and other major cities)--less death, but huge economic disruption and good symbolism. If you can't get trucks close enough, maybe you could achieve the same results with private planes or even with gliders. Or where the bridges are concerned you could duplicate the boat bomb that al Qaeda used against the USS Cole; this might be a good way to attack the Statue of Liberty too. At a minimum it seems we should prepare as best we can to face these kinds of threat.

There are a couple of obvious responses that we could make right now : ground all civilian aircraft and ban trucks from all major urban areas until we've dealt with the threat. Sure it would be inconvenient; sure it would cause economic disruption; sure we might look ridiculous if we can't uncover the specific plots and perpetrators behind these warnings; but we'd decrease the risk of attack. Is anyone in a leadership position in either party or in the press even remotely suggesting that we take such actions? No, of course not. Are they suggesting any actions further than those we've already taken? No. Are those we've taken adequate to stop such attacks? No. So who are we kidding here? Ourselves.

Even after taking such actions, most of the same attacks could be undertaken by car bombs or by suicide bombers with explosives strapped to themselves. And there may be no precaution we could take that would stop a group of terrorists with Anthrax from spreading it in such crowded places as ballparks, amusement parks, etc. And, when you get right down to it, have you seen a single anti-terrorism expert who believes that al Qaeda couldn't almost exactly duplicate the initial strikes by highjacking planes? Every guy I've seen says that he could actually get guns on board right now, without much trouble.

It's all well and good to talk tough and to pretend that we can make ourselves safe from terrorism, but the brutal truth is that we probably can not stop determined and suicidal murderers from killing a lot of Americans and doing considerable infrastructural damage unless we're willing to sacrifice so much of our way of life as to render America unrecognizable. Maybe it is instead time to recognize that we are not safe and we are not going to be, that we are all potential targets and that more of us are going to be killed before this phase of radical Islam writhes its way to its inevitable death. We are still entitled to demand that our government do what it can to protect us and to make such attacks more difficult. Anyone, from the president on down, who fails to perform his duties in this regard should be held to account. But as we seek to place blame for past failures and to prepare for future attacks, we have to look at ourselves and our society realistically and recognize how limited are the responses that we are going to tolerate. This not a bad thing, that we value our freedom and our prosperity so highly that we are willing to sacrifice lives to maintain them. But we need to honestly face the fact that this is the trade off we're making. And if we aren't willing to make that trade-off, then those who think it intolerable to lose a single life to terrorism need to clearly enunciate the steps they are willing to take to try to avoid this eventuality. (This is particularly important because the folks who are complaining the most loudly about the past failures are those who are the most reluctant to cede the government new authority to take admittedly repressive measures to foil future acts.) What's going on now--the demands for government prescience; the casting of blame; the search for scapegoats--is unworthy of a great people and a great nation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 19, 2002 11:35 AM
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