Playing Monday morning quarterback with terrorism

Posted: May 21, 2002 12:00 AM
Would Americans have been better off last summer if we'd been warned that a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil was imminent? A lot of Monday morning quarterbacks in the nation's capital seem to think so. Democrats have spent the last week pointing fingers at President Bush and the White House for failing to warn us of the Sept. 11 attack. "They certainly were not forthcoming about the general threat environment that they were facing in July and August," huffed former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta to the New York Times. Sen. Hillary Clinton was even more pointed: Holding up a newspaper with the headline "Bush Knew," Clinton asked, "The president knew what?" Then she called on the president to "come before the American people at the earliest possible time to answer the questions so many New Yorkers and Americans are asking." But no one in his or her right mind believes that President Bush knew that terrorists were going to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. What President Bush did know -- as did every president before him for at least the last 20 years -- is that one day terrorists would attack Americans on U.S. soil. But he didn't know when, where or how the attack would take place. Without that information, it was impossible to foil the plot that killed 3,000 Americans. So what should the president have done in August 2001 after he was warned that intelligence sources thought an attack against American interests was likely in the not too distant future? If the president had gone public with the information, he probably would have been rebuked by the very same people who are raising a fuss now because he didn't speak out sooner. Remember, last August, many partisan Democrats were still suggesting that President Bush was the illegitimate occupant of the White House who had "stolen" the election. Had President Bush raised the terrorism issue, he would have been accused of fear mongering or trying to win popularity by invoking "national security." Imagine that George W. Bush had gone on the air last summer to suggest that a man named Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network were planning to attack the United States. Would Hill Democrats have been prepared to have the FBI start hauling in Arab men with suspected ties to terrorist groups for questioning? Would they have been willing to see illegal immigrants from the Middle East detained and, perhaps, deported? Would they have been willing to appropriate more funds for better airport security, at the expense of, say, day care? Would they have authorized new wire tap laws that made it easier to intercept calls from suspected terrorists? Would they have been willing to freeze assets of Islamic "charity" front groups that fund terrorists? I doubt it. And what would the public's response have been? Half the population -- those who voted for President Bush or generally supported what he'd done in his first several months in office -- would have been scared by the president's warning. But they couldn't have done much. The other half, those who opposed the president, would probably have ignored the warning, or worse, turned it into a new reason to demonize Bush. That's not to say that nothing could have been done to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. The United States could have been better prepared to fight terrorism, but the preparation would have had to have started a long time ago -- certainly before George W. Bush took office, maybe even before Bill Clinton became president. What's more, it would have required a commitment from the American people that just wasn't there until the terrorist threat became a reality. Even now, not quite nine months after planes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and with American troops still fighting in Afghanistan, life has pretty much gone back to normal in the country. Vice-president Cheney warned this weekend, "The prospects of a future attack on the U.S. are almost a certainty. It could happen tomorrow, it could happen next week, it could happen next year, but they will keep trying." Are we better off now that we've been properly warned?
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