US unready for the next - likely - act of terror

Commissioners investigating the 9/11 attacks came here last week, asked a series of tough questions, and came to some grim conclusions: There will be another major terrorist attack on US soil, and Americans are not ready for it.

This will undoubtedly be the thrust of the final report the commission is due to make July 26. Though there have been other warnings about the level of US preparedness, they have been largely unheeded. This time, the commission's recommendations should be trumpeted and those found credible should be acted upon.

Ironically, as the commission was conducting its sober investigation in a hearing room about a mile from the scene of the World Trade Center disaster, life elsewhere in the city underlined what little sacrifice many of us have had to make since the war on terrorism began. Thousands still mourn loved ones lost in the attack, as do those who have lost soldier sons, daughters, husbands, and wives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the streets of New York are bustling with workers and shoppers. The subways run, the stretch limos glide along Park Avenue, out-of-towners clamor for $100-and-up seats at Broadway shows, the lights at night are bright, and the newspapers advertise handbags at Bergdorf's for $895 a pop, satin-silk sandals at Saks for $775, and Tiffany flower-pot brooches for $11,200.

In my own life there is no disruption, except for having to empty my pockets and take off my belt and shoes for security checks at airports.

This is a far cry from schoolboy life in London during World War II, when we were obliged to give up iron fences to build ships and aluminum pots and pans to build Spitfire airplanes, and to hunker down in air-raid shelters in our back yards.

That, of course, was a different kind of war, when a German invasion of Britain seemed imminent. In America today, we don't need to black out our cities and live in air-raid shelters, because an Al Qaeda force is not about to land or parachute in from the skies to occupy us. Indeed, it is desirable that we should try to live life as normally as possible, not in fear, and that we should keep fueling a robust economy.

But the threat of terrorism is there - perhaps a chemical attack in a subway on the eve of the Republican convention in New York, or simultaneous disruption of air traffic in a half-dozen cities. Or even detonation of a low-yield nuclear device. The New York Times reports that as early as 2001, North Korea was selling uranium to entities that could use it to manufacture nuclear weapons.

These scenarios are not science fiction but credible possibilities. If successfully implemented, such acts of cold-blooded terrorism could be just as threatening to the structure of American society as an invading army. While there were great acts of heroism at the moment of the 9/11 attacks, and while there has been some bolstering of US homeland defenses since, the 9/11 commission will conclude that America is not as prepared for the next attack as it should be, and could be.

A year after 9/11, a task force cochaired by former Sens. Warren Rudman (R) and Gary Hart (D) reported that "America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic terrorist attack on US soil."

Last year, Mr. Rudman chaired a follow-up task force that found first-line emergency responders to a terrorist attack - firefighters, police, and public health workers - were still "drastically underfunded, dangerously unprepared."

Across the country, firefighters had only enough radios to equip half of them per shift, and breathing apparatuses for only a third. Police departments lacked the protective gear necessary to deal with an attack by weapons of mass destruction. Public health laboratories lacked basic equipment to respond to chemical or biological attacks.

Now the 9/11 commissioners will fault, among other things, inadequate radio equipment, faulty communication, and longstanding interagency rivalries in New York and other cities that continue to hinder "interoperability" - the ability of federal, state, and local government agencies to talk to each other in times of crisis.

Despite warnings by President Bush that the war on terrorism will be different, hard, and long, the US may not, as a nation, have realized what sacrifices this may entail.

The good news is that the 9/11 commission's report will give us another opportunity to come to grips with the realities of this new age of terrorism.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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