Reflections on the attack

Posted: Sep 20, 2001 12:00 AM
During these days of national mourning, so much to say about the worst-ever terror attack on the American citizenry, and so little space.... The devotion, courage, and perseverance of so many directly affected, of rescuers at the sites of the infernos, and of sleuthing investigators. Flags everywhere. The melding of America. Prayer. NATO has determined that the Sept. 11 assault comprises an assault on all NATO nations. In private e-mail remarks, many Chinese remain nearly as anti-American as many Palestinians; on precisely the day of the terrorist assaults, Chinese officials signed a deal with Taliban officials in neighboring Afghanistan to broaden technical and economic ties. Incredible Boss Yasser insists, in the face of contrary video evidence, "it was less than 10 [Palestinian] children in East Jerusalem" who rejoiced over the attacks - and fired guns into the air. Stock markets abroad initially plunged but then recovered, some energy prices briefly soared, phone service (particularly cell) was widely disrupted but often proved to be a salvation, and air travel - with so much else - will be forever changed. To deal with those changes, Americans will accept privacy intrusions (searches, video cameras) as they have accepted such intrusions since hijackings became fashionable. But then, the last time we had one-day losses of this magnitude, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. Many (but certainly not all) of those worrying about invasions of privacy are the same nellies warning against "overreaction" and retribution making things worse - and spurring our enemies on to escalated assaults against America. Of course, doing nothing or too little defines defeatism. They win. Yes, open societies are vulnerable; Sept. 11 may have been one of the prices paid for civil liberties and rights. But a necessary price? Warning bells have sounded since Sirhan shot Robert Kennedy: the Munich Olympics, too many hijackings, Tehran; the Khobar Towers, Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam; the Achille Lauro, the Cole; the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center I. Et al. And various federal commissions, including the one that after three years of study issued a March report saying, "Attacks against American citizens on American soil, possibly causing heavy casualties, are likely over the next quarter-century." Fingers are beginning to be pointed for failure. The fattest target: a liberalism that gutted our CIA, undid our spying capacity, and drove down our military at precisely the moment terrorism moved from the theoretical to the real. Nineteen hijackers of four planes hit us in the face with a two-by-four. They notified us we are in - whether we like it or not - the Third (or, if you count the Cold War, the Fourth) World War. President Bush is beginning to talk about a generation-long "war against terrorism" - perhaps the requirement against zealots and fanatics of a radicalized Islam, as opposed to the rubbing out of mere bullies. (Question: Who now regrets we have Bush and his security/military team? Maybe this was, in truth, what the past election was all about.) It is suddenly a jingoistic, bellicose hour. Colin Powell speaks of a "global assault." Military analyst Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, says, "It's time now to start talking about killing people. Terrorists - you can't reason with them. All you can do is kill them." If the attackers had had nuclear weapons, surely they would have used them. So our consideration of their responsive use, or perhaps even quasi-benign biochemical weapons, should not be out of the question. Writes Thomas Woodrow, a 22-year intelligence officer recently resigned from the Defense Intelligence Agency: "To consider use of the nation's nuclear forces, in the present circumstances, cannot be brushed aside as an overly emotional response to the unknown face of terrorism. To begin with, we know who that face belongs to, and we know where a goodly portion of his logistical and training capabilities are located. A series of low-level, tactical nuclear strikes in the Afghanistan desert would pose no risk to large population centers and would carry little risk of fallout spreading to populated areas." President Truman was less concerned about harming the Japanese population than about saving American lives - and about bringing Japan, perpetrator of an earlier "Day of Infamy," to its knees. If his was the correct calculus then, why would it be wrong now? If not this, what?