The way to make us safer
The gravity of the "catastrophic threat" America faces was spelled out with sobering candor in the report of the bipartisan 9/11 commission, and it reverberated through the Democratic convention last week. An attack of even greater magnitude is now possible, and even probable, the commission said. "We believe we are safer today . . . but we are not safe."
The threats now posed from the Islamic terrorists of the cult of death are not just airplanes filled with jet fuel but far more-powerful weapons that put at risk not thousands but tens of thousands. Imagine what such an attack would do to American public opinion. Imagine the pressure Americans would put on our government to protect them at all costs. The freedom and civil liberties we now enjoy would be under a terrible strain.
Yet to remain a liberal democracy, we cannot live in fear behind concrete barriers and wire mesh. Nor can we live in a perpetual state of heightened readiness, which would impose unacceptable costs on our way of life. We cannot search every bag brought onto a public conveyance or every car parked in a shopping mall. This new terrorism threatens the security on which our democracy depends, poisoning the wellspring of trust among strangers that makes the relative liberty of liberal democracy possible.
Which is precisely why we cannot wait to be attacked again. We have no choice but to continue seeking to stop the terrorists before they can terrorize us--and to do what we can to prevent these frustrated and deluded young Islamists from becoming terrorists in the first place. As the 9/11 commission pointed out, the enemy is not just al Qaeda but all the radical ideological movements in the Islamic world. Thousands of young Muslims have been brainwashed (like the Manchurian candidate) to believe it is their sacred duty to fight against the western world and even against western-supported moderate regimes in the Middle East--the very same governments that have signally failed to deliver either the economic opportunities or political freedoms that so frustrate many of these young men.
Deadly menace. Our focus must be on the Muslim world because decades of dysfunctional rule there have produced radical Islamic terrorism, Saddam Hussein-style hijacked states, and regimes that are so fearful of subversion that they accommodate and even finance terrorism--witness Saudi Arabia. Without the acquiescence of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda could never have grown into a deadly menace in Sudan and Afghanistan. Without the backing of Iran and Syria, Hezbollah would cease to exist at all, much less possess the weapons that today can create a conflagration across the Middle East.
We have a stake in how these Middle East regimes treat their people, for as much as two thirds of their population is under the age of 25. It is the correlation of youth and political oppression that expands the pool of recruits for delusional fanatics like Osama bin Laden. We must create models of success that will prove that there can be--that there is--a different way that works. Which is why success in Iraq is so critical. The terrorists know it. And that's why they are fighting so desperately in Baghdad and Fallujah. Which in turn is why the shameful withdrawals of Spanish and Philippine troops from Iraq are so deplorable. They are telling the terrorists: Go on killing--that's the way to win!
For years the West did too little to combat the terror being mounted and waged against it. On 9/11, we saw the consequences of that approach. That's why the commission laid out a strategy of ensuring that terrorist groups do not find sanctuary in "the least governed, most lawless places in the world." Rather, we must keep them constantly on the run, isolating rogue states and unstable regimes that offer terrorists succor or sanctuary.
This new terrorism puts a premium on intelligence if terrorists are truly to be rooted out before they can wreak death and destruction on us. The 9/11 commission is surely right to recommend a single congressional place for intelligence, oversight, and review, either through a joint committee or, at most, through a permanent standing committee in each chamber. Such an approach will require Congress to abjure the kind of pork-barrel politics that even now results in the disgracefully disproportionate allocation of security funds that has Wyoming receiving seven times as much per capita as New York.
The self-interest of turf-conscious lawmakers must not stand in the way of reform of our intelligence community and a more sensible allocation of security money. Failure here means that the promise of the 21st century would disintegrate into a time in which Americans live in fear and the quality of our life as we have known it erodes day by day.
This story appears in the August 9, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.