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Listen to some pundits and you’d think no one should ever mention the possibility of terrorist attacks in this country and that a few terrorist strikes here and there would be no big thing, anyway. Hey, we have auto accidents, don’t we?
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he had a “gut feeling” about a possible al Qaeda hit this summer, and in rushed the commentary troops screaming their tiny little heads off about “scare tactics.” They said what the White House itself had been quick to say — there was no specific information about a plot — and overlooked the obvious, that someone immersed in minutiae about terrorist activities just might have a correct if unverifiable intuition of what’s about to happen.
But please, please, Secretary Chertoff, let Americans slumber the same as before Sept. 11, 2001, forgetting thwarted terrorist schemes here and abroad since then, and successful attacks in Spain and England. Speak up and you will only feed those who say administration mentions of some possible dangers are timed to divert attention from some criticism or the other, as if that could not be any week of the year.
So, no, don’t disturb the fantasists among us with realistic expectations, and don’t anyone ever suggest that an attack, if it should come, is something that would be all that devastating. Keep in mind, one columnist keeps reminding us, that people die for reasons other than terrorism — just since 2001, he says, 250,000 of us have been killed in auto accidents. Preventing a significant number of these deaths would have required a cost beyond the reasonable, he says, while instructing us that unsure efforts to keep us safe from inept terrorists are disproportionate to the risk.
There’s another view, and it comes from plenty of people with no possible political motive, but a considerable amount of information. It comes from people such as Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who thinks the odds are in favor of terrorists slamming us with a nuclear bomb within the next 10 years or so in the absence of a series of steps. He says al Qaeda has made clear its hopes of getting the weapons, which can be bought or stolen from a variety of places or built with enriched uranium, and observes that smuggling the bombs into the country could be accomplished using methods criminals employ to smuggle drugs into the country.
The loss of life would be horrific in a nuclear attack — maybe 100,000 dead with just one bomb, maybe many more. We wouldn’t know when it might happen again, and we would be utterly sickened and insistent on far-reaching protections that could evolve into a police state. The usually optimistic, energetic America we have known could be changed into something far different, something dour and ugly, and it could be decades before we would get back to the country as it had been, maybe longer, maybe never if the attacks continued.
Allison wants us to further secure weapons and weapons-grade materials and to prevent new nations from joining the nuclear club. For sure, we must keep Iran’s self-revealed religious maniacs from getting nuclear weapons they want to use against Israel and sooner or later us, and I would add this: We must have White House leadership willing to do whatever is necessary to secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if extremists take over that country’s government; we must be willing to take decisive action against any state that would work with terrorists to build these weapons, even by harboring them while they are doing it, and we must have exhaustive, though legal and rights-protecting intelligence.
We can’t just scat from Iraq, leaving the possibility of a hostile, terrorist dictatorship, although there might be ways to redeploy troops to safety there if the current strategy fizzles.
We must, in short, be vigilant — expensively vigilant, if necessary — on behalf of our preservation as an extraordinary civilization. This doesn’t mean we should be frightened into foolishness, just that we face the facts squarely, refusing to shut our eyes at what is going on in the world, and respond rationally, realizing what is at stake.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)