Eternal Vigilance

Judith Miller writes on why we haven’t seen another attack on the US in the last six years:

Why has al-Qa’eda not repeated the attacks it staged in New York and Washington six years ago to the day? Because it can’t.

That is the only partly reassuring consensus of some of the experts who tried hardest to warn Washington about the danger posed by al-Qa’eda and militant Islam prior to its devastating strikes on September 11. Richard Clarke, the anti-terrorism adviser to two American presidents, Michael Sheehan, New York’s former deputy police commissioner who headed the State Department’s anti-terrorism effort, and others who sensed the danger long before it became obvious, assert that offensive and defensive measures taken since that terrible day have not only severely degraded al-Qa’eda’s ability to stage another terrorism “spectacular”, but have made American cities and targets less vulnerable.

Thanks to such steps, “we are safer than we were on September 11, 2001,” John Scott Redd, a retired vice-admiral who now leads the intelligence community’s National Counter-terrorism Centre, told anxious legislators on Capitol Hill yesterday. “But we are not safe,” he added. “Nor are we likely to be for a generation or more.”

We’ve done a much better job with security, but we are still chillingly vulnerable. Critical infrastructure is still vulnerable to attack, things like chemical plants, water purification plants, and food processing facilities. Our efforts at airport security are still a joke — the only way to effectively use our limited resources for security in an intelligent way is to do some profiling. A 3-year-old kid shouldn’t be getting checked for explosive residue, because by performing that check you potentially ignore a more likely target. We still waste far too much money on “homeland security” projects that defend targets of little value while taking money that could be best spent elsewhere.

The Department of Homeland Security, which is a good idea in theory, hasn’t worked in practice. It makes sense to have one coordinated command for homeland defense — but instead of simplifying the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy has expanded. Bureaucracy and agility are at odds, and we need institutions that are every bit as agile as the threats we face.

Ultimately, even the best defense isn’t enough. We need to go on the offensive to stop terrorism before it happens. Our record on this is equally mixed. We need to put more political pressure on the Musharraf regime to stop the infiltration of al-Qaeda across the Afghan/Pakistan border. We need to start working to undermine terrorist groups like Hamas and Hizballah in the same way we have done to al-Qaeda. As Europe faces the increasing radicalization of its mosques, we should be prepared to deal with the same here.

We haven’t been attacked because our government, by and large, has made it the number one priority to prevent another 9/11 from ever happening again. We may have stumbled and faltered along the way, but if six years ago someone had said that we would not see another attack like 9/11 for this long I’d scarcely have believed them.

Our government gets a lot of things wrong, but they have prevented another major attack on US soil. They have learned the lessons of that terrible day six years ago. As Jefferson once observed, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. We are safer, but we are not yet safe. We’ve seen what happens when we let our guard down, and our current relative safety is the result of an attitude that we need to be more vigilant and more aware of the threats we face.

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