Pondering the outcome of yesterday's elections, and this week's Federal Reserve decision on interest rates, Americans are awash in politics and the economy. What they should really be concerned about is what knowledgeable experts believe is the next terrorist attack, and our apparent lack of preparedness for it.
Fourteen months after Islamic extremist hijackers crashed airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, citizens tell pollsters that terrorism is their second-greatest concern, after jobs and the economy. But turning a nation as large and complex as the US into a force ready to withstand terrorism is as difficult as turning around on a dime a giant super-tanker under way at sea.
With hindsight after Sept. 11, it became clear that a handful of thoughtful experts had anticipated the kind of threat the US might face, and advocated measures to face it. A government commission headed by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman warned that terrorist attacks against targets on US soil were nearly inevitable and that structures and strategies to respond were inadequate. Their recommendations were given scant attention by the media, or action by Washington.
After the Sept. 11 shock was absorbed, the US moved swiftly and effectively to neutralize Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and ramp up security at home. Though there have been some improvements in homeland security, politics and complacency have impeded the effort.
A critical Hart-Rudman recommendation was creation of a homeland security department, into which security agencies would be folded to coordinate defense against terrorism more efficiently. It is yet to see daylight. Although security systems have been improved at many airports, the government won't take over passenger screening until Nov. 19 and baggage screening until Dec. 31.
If the US failed to absorb the lessons of Sept. 11, it has a second chance. Hart and Rudman, co-chairing a new Council on Foreign Relations task force on homeland security, have warned that "a year after Sept. 11, America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic terrorist attack on US soil."
In recent days we've seen how sniper attacks in the Washington area, a bomb attack on a Balinese night club, or the seizing of hostages in a Moscow theater can paralyze such communities. But, these are relatively minor compared with the chaos the members of the new Hart-Rudman task force can foresee emanating from a new, coordinated attack by ruthless terrorists. Their chilling warning: "The next attack will result in even greater casualties and widespread disruption to American lives and the economy. The need for immediate action is made more imminent by the prospect of the United States going to war with Iraq and the possibility that Saddam Hussein might threaten the use of weapons of mass destruction in America."
The most recent task force was no scare-mongering bunch of amateurs. It included two former secretaries of state, two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a former director of the CIA and FBI, and a slew of other distinguished authorities. They were concerned about the vulnerability of seaports, power plants, and oil refineries, and appalled that while federal screeners are being hired at airports, "only the tiniest percentage of containers, ships, trucks and trains that enter the US ... are subject to examination."
They found that 650,000 local and state police officials operate in a virtual intelligence vacuum about wanted terrorists, and that police, fire, and emergency medical technicians are not prepared for a chemical or biological attack.
The task force does not assign blame for the tardiness in preparing against attacks, but it does demand new urgency in getting things done. Its key recommendations are: better sharing of intelligence; more screening of sea and land traffic, as compared with air; a big new home- security role for the National Guard; a backup plan involving Canada to restore the nation's energy grid should it be attacked; an "anti-red tape" law to speed recruitment of homeland security personnel.
If the US missed the early warnings against the kind of terrorist acts that occurred on Sept. 11, it shouldn't make the same mistake twice by disregarding the latest warning from those who called it right the first time.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.