With smoke still billowing like a funeral pyre from the
ruins of the World Trade
Center, cries could be heard for
vengeance against an unseen and unknown enemy who left no return address.
Hunting down and punishing the “folks” who did these things will test the
nation’s patience, although it is far more important to be careful than to be
quick. The thousands of innocent dead deserve justice, which tempers rage with
reason. Should reliable information emerge proving the culpability of Osama
bin-Laden and his protectors in the Taliban, the United
States is fully capable of dealing with
In the days to come, we will hear much speculation about who
is to blame for this atrocity, and fingers are likely to be pointed not only
abroad but at home. The airwaves may soon be filled with torrents of nonsense
rhetoric from politicians attributing fault to their partisan adversaries,
speaking as if they knew how such an attack could have been prevented. They
didn’t, and they don’t.
For the moment-and probably for some weeks
to come-the appropriate attitude for citizens is to support the efforts of
government officials at all levels to cope with the bloody consequences.
If past American responses to acts of terrorism and war are any guide, the
President can expect an upsurge of patriotic support; let us hope he uses that
enhanced authority wisely.
Wisdom, in the wake of a
momentous disaster, means the questioning of prior assumptions, prejudices and
policies. Clearly, we will have to find ways to enhance the security of our
society that don’t destroy the liberty we seek to defend. But there are other
issues to be considered. For George W. Bush and his administration, the ideas
and initiatives that must now be reconsidered can be described as
unilateralism. The notion of the United States as an impregnable fortress, with little need for
treaties and allies, has become outdated again in a single day.
The most conspicuous
symbol of unilateralism is the missile shield, or national missile defense,
whose irrelevance to the present international realities has suddenly been
revealed amid blood and fire. The so-called shield is, as one critic has said,
“a weapon that won’t work against a threat that doesn’t exist.” What happened
on Sept. 11 demonstrated irrefutably that any enemy determined to inflict mass
destruction upon America can do so without ballistic missiles. To insist
on that proposal-at a projected cost of $100 billion-would be to waste time,
money and scientific talent, when all those resources would be better spent on
effective domestic and international security measures.
The apparent capacity of terrorists to penetrate our
airports and airspace forces us to think about the unthinkable. If an enemy can
bring down the World Trade
Center and destroy a substantial
part of the Pentagon, why would we assume that they could not someday drop a
nuclear device on the doorstep of the White House? Attack by such low-tech
means, instead of a high-tech rocket, would elude the missile shield. The only
plausible defense against terrorist use of atomic weapons is to secure nuclear
materials around the globe from those who might misuse them.
Yet so far, the Bush administration has shown little
interest in the programs created for that purpose, notably in the former Soviet
Union. Federal officials ignored recommendations by a bipartisan
panel to sharply increase funding of those efforts, and even considered cutting
them. For a tiny fraction of the price of the useless missile shield, the
unguarded weapons and fissionable elements in Russia
could be removed from danger.
Unfortunately, international cooperation has not been the
outstanding characteristic of foreign policy in this administration or among
its supporters in Congress, to say the least. Their contrarian viewpoint has
been expressed in contempt for American obligations under the Anti-Ballistic
Missile Treaty, as well as for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that was so
carefully designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Treaties and
alliances, they appear to believe, are for weaklings and dreamers, when in fact
such agreements are essential to our own future security. Preventing
proliferation ought to be the paramount objective of American policy, and anything that destabilizes or deflects that aim
must be avoided.
If we are really determined to safeguard our cities and
citizenry, maintenance of our overseas alliances is the strongest shield. A
jetliner could just as easily be hijacked from a foreign airport, and then
flown into an American target, as from Logan or Dulles. Rather than aggravating
our differences with allies in Europe and elsewhere, the
administration should consider ways to strengthen those ties. Many of those
nations have considerably more experience with terror on their soil than we do;
their assistance in combating what may become a continuing assault is vital.
Improved relations with our traditional allies may also help
us to convince them that a more aggressive approach to terrorist organizations
is both realistic and necessary. The likelihood of success against the forces
responsible for this extraordinarily well-executed crime will be considerably
greater if civilized nations are coordinated with equal precision. The ability
of the United States
to lead depends entirely upon the confidence with which other nations regard
These suggestions scarcely reflect the present philosophy of
the Bush administration-with the possible exception of Secretary of State Colin
Powell, whose influence has been waning since the day he was appointed. But Mr.
Bush wouldn’t be the first Republican President to change course when
confronted with previously misunderstood realities. His father’s administration
at first coddled Saddam Hussein, and then led an allied expedition against
Iraqi aggression. Ronald Reagan vowed to build an even more ambitious version
of the missile defense, to the horror of our allies, and then abandoned that
mirage to negotiate historic agreements with the Soviet Union.
In this tragic moment, Mr. Bush too can seize an opportunity
to correct his administration’s course. All Americans should wish him the
wisdom to do so.