The Rediscovery of Danger

Nov. 1, 2001

The terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon have been likened to Pearl Harbor. The question was soon asked, as it was after Pearl Harbor: Why weren’t we warned

The fact is, we were warned. Two years ago, for example, a Presidential commission led by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman predicted a terrorist attack on the United States and warned that “Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.”

Not all of the commission’s fears were realized on Sept. 11. Hart-Rudman said the attack might involve nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons.

In July 1999, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen warned that we had “not a moment to lose” in preparing for a terrorist attack on the US homeland.

In testimony to Congress last March, the Defense Intelligence Agency forecast a major terrorist attack, either in the United States or abroad, over the next 12 to 24 months “with a weapon designed to produce mass casualties.”

We had further warning from the car bomb attempt on the World Trade Center in 1993, as well as from the attacks on the Air Force’s Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and on USS Cole in Yemen last year. These atrocities generated no more than temporary outrage and perfunctory responses.

The warnings were there. We just didn’t pay attention because we perceived no threat to our security. Then the terror attacks reordered our national priorities overnight. We have begun to take national security as a serious matter, but it is not clear whether the full import has sunk in yet.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, reaction focused on the vulnerability of airlines and airports. But airline security is only part of the terrorist threat, and terrorism is only part of the national security problem. Defeating terrorism, as vital as that is, is not our only requirement.

Prior to the attacks, we were deeply involved in a national defense review, aimed at correcting problems of the armed forces, accumulated over the past decade, and transforming them to meet the needs of a new century.

The war on terror pushed those issues out of sight and made them seem long ago and far away. In reality, they are still there, and we cannot delay dealing with them much longer. In some ways, resolving them will be more difficult than before.

Until a month ago, the prevailing presumption was that we were in an interlude of “strategic pause.” The nation perceived itself as between wars, and between significant threats.

Therefore, an assumption of the fundamental defense review, ongoing since February, was that we would be able to accept more risk in the short term and divert efforts and resources to the needs of the future.

It is now clear that we have serious, compelling national security requirements that are here and now. There is little margin for playing off the needs of today against the needs of tomorrow. We must attend to them both. Likewise, our counterterror requirements are in addition to, not instead of, other military requirements.

The emergency appropriation approved by Congress will bring much-needed improvements in counterterror capability. Some such improvements, especially in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, will have broader applicability, but most national defense shortcomings are still where we left them six weeks ago.

The nation feels little urgency about stabilizing the slide of the armed forces, replenishing their stores of spare parts and munitions, or replacing their aging and worn out equipment. The newly awakened sense of national security does not go that far.

The Pentagon has declared homeland defense to be its paramount mission. It could hardly do otherwise. The United States is under attack.

However, defensive measures at home will not win the war on terror. It is not physically possible to defend everything all of the time.

The first time, it was a fuel-laden aircraft. Next time it may be a subway, a shopping mall, a football stadium, or the water supply.

As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, terrorists “don’t live in Antarctica. They work, they train, and they plan in countries” from which they receive support. Defeating the terror networks means taking the fight to them. We must “drain the swamp they live in,” Rumsfeld said.

In Operation Enduring Freedom, the armed forces began carrying the war to states that sponsor and export terror.

In the months ahead, the nation faces a test of will. With the rubble of the twin towers still smouldering–and before the first blow had been struck against the terrorists–the pacifists were in the streets, calling for gentle measures and American restraint. Three blocks from the White House, anti-war protesters burned a US flag.

It remains to be seen whether we will sustain the commitment to wipe out terror. Beyond that, there are additional threats to our national security. At the moment, they might seem distant, even far-fetched.

We should remember that the threat from terrorism seemed distant, too, right up to 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, when American Airlines Flight 11 struck the north tower of the World Trade Center.