Bombers, taxes, and trains

George Will

10/1/2001 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--A military communique during the Spanish Civil War proclaimed, ``The advance was continued all day without any ground being lost.'' For a while, such may seem to be the most that can be said for the visible progress of the current war. However, Americans are impatient problem-solvers, so here are three things that should be done, the doing of which will assuage any sense the nation is having trouble gaining traction in the tasks at hand. First, buy more B-2 bombers. President Bush has declared war against terrorist groups ``with global reach.'' The B-2 is the pre-eminent technology (as distinct from ground combat units) for reaching across the globe to such groups. Ordering more B-2s would reaffirm America's determination to project power. The B-2 is stealthy, so it can arrive over a target without the enemy having even radar forewarnings. It can fly from the United States, so there are no foreign basing complications. It can operate in all types of weather. And new munitions make it highly likely that any identified target will be destroyed. New technologies for seeing targets are significantly better than those in use during Desert Storm a decade ago. The B-2 can attack 16 targets simultaneously with 2,000-pound bombs or, with planned improvements, up to 260 targets with smaller munitions. It is a weapon indispensable for a nation that has enemies in distant places and accepts Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's axiom that the best defense is a good offense. Second, cut corporate income taxes. About the economy, some perspective. Even at the end of the first week of trading after the attacks--the worst week in 68 years--the stock market had plunged only to where it had been in October 1998, when America was fabulously prosperous. Even before that week, which drained $1.4 trillion in value from the stock market, the market had, fortunately, shed about $5 trillion in value, largely because of the popping of the tech-sector bubble. Yes, fortunately. Imagine the psychological effects of cascading losses of perhaps $6 trillion in one week if the bubble had burst simultaneously with the attacks. The economy's recent anemia has been largely the result not of the normal cause of a downturn--slow consumer spending--but rather of negative investment decisions by businesses. Their profits have shrunk partly because of something that has kept consumer spending remarkably strong: This is a ``progressive'' slump. Labor is getting an increased share of the nation's economic product. Now consumers do need to be encouraged, but there is no certain way of doing that. However, cutting corporate taxes would certainly increase after-tax profits and, hence, companies' ability to invest. Third, build high-speed rail service. Two months ago this columnist wrote: ``A government study concludes that for trips of 500 miles or less--a majority of flights; 40 percent are of 300 miles or less--automotive travel is as fast or faster than air travel, door to door. Columnist Robert Kuttner sensibly says that fact strengthens the case for high-speed trains. If such trains replaced air shuttles in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, Kuttner says that would free about 60 takeoff and landing slots per hour.'' Thinning air traffic in the Boston-New York-Washington air corridor has acquired new urgency. Read Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker essay on the deadly dialectic between the technological advances in making air travel safer and the adaptations to these advances by terrorists. ``Airport-security measures,'' writes Gladwell, ``have simply chased out the amateurs and left the clever and the audacious.'' This is why although the number of terrorist attacks has been falling for many years, fatalities from hijackings and bombings have increased. As an Israeli terrorism expert says, ``the history of attacks on commercial aviation reveals that new terrorist methods of attack have virtually never been foreseen by security authorities.'' The lesson to be learned is not defeatism. Security improvements can steadily complicate terrorists' tasks and increase the likelihood of defeating them on the ground. However, shifting more travelers away from the busiest airports to trains would reduce the number of flights that have to be protected and the number of sensitive judgments that have to be made, on the spot, quickly, about individual travelers. Congress should not adjourn without funding the nine-state Midwest Regional Rail Initiative. Each of these three proposals was sensible before September 11. And it is hardly unpatriotic to seize this moment of unusual seriousness to get serious about agendas that languished when, until three weeks ago, the nation had a seriousness deficit.