A spate of recent terrorism events–the bombing of a French tanker, the destruction of a nightclub in Bali, an FBI warning of a “spectacular” Al Qaeda action and the surfacing of a new Osama bin Laden tape indicating that the Al Qaeda leader is still alive–has pushed up the already elevated national anxiety level. The New York Times reported that Gothamites are “more fearful” these days, even though the crime rate has dropped. “All across the political spectrum,” says Fred Siegel, a history professor, “there is just an uneasiness, a sense that something is happening, though people can’t put their finger on it.” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly attributes the uneasiness to fear of terrorism.
In the recent election, George W. Bush strummed voters’ anxieties in sync with political adviser Karl Rove’s score, derived from polls showing people believe the GOP is stronger on national security than the Democrats. And just this week Bush won passage of his Homeland Security Bill, even though its most immediate results will be to remove job protections from thousands of federal workers and line the pockets of GOP corporate contributors.
In the same issue of the Times was this headline: “Are You Safer Today Than a Year Ago?” Good question. The battered Democrats should have asked it. The response of Tom Ridge, Bush’s domestic security adviser, was a Pollyannaish: “Every single day, the nation gets safer.” Really? Consider:
§ A US attack on Iraq will very likely provoke more terrorism in the form of retaliatory strikes against the United States, as even the CIA has warned. This, of course, was part of bin Laden’s threats on the recent tape. The war will foment anti-American rage among radical Islamists and provide added incentives for suicidal hits by Al Qaeda and other groups.
§ The Administration’s Iraq war is eclipsing what should be the main effort in the war on terrorism–knitting together a smart, agile, global antiterrorist network of national intelligence, police and financial agencies. Instead, the Administration invests its diplomatic capital in co-opting the United Nations and bullying UN members to line up behind the unpopular anti-Saddam crusade. Many allies spend more time and energy trying to contain us than in combating international terrorism.
§ The focus on Iraq has overshadowed the greater dangers of Russia’s very real, very insecure nuclear arsenal and North Korea’s possible one. More Nunn-Lugar Act funds are needed to deal with the former, and more diplomatic talk, the latter.
§ The looming threat of war–now on, now on hold–contributes to the pervasive uncertainty and uneasiness, fueling concerns about casualties, costs, higher oil prices, a sagging economy and a roller-coaster stock market. Americans worry about losing their jobs, that their 401(k) won’t be there when they need it. The consumer confidence index dips. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan lists war jitters among the factors contributing to the sluggish recovery.
§ Al Qaeda and Taliban forces show renewed signs of life in Afghanistan, indicating the job still isn’t done. Gen. Richard Myers recently suggested that the United States ought to be devoting more effort to reconstruction than to military operations (America has spent billions on the war and thus far $850 million on humanitarian aid and reconstruction), and the CIA has concluded: “Reconstruction may be the single most important factor in increasing security throughout Afghanistan and preventing it from again becoming a haven for terrorists.” And yet, according to the British Guardian, the United States “has this year again armed some of the worst warlords, who pretended to search for al-Qaeda operatives yet yielded nothing.” A more robust UN force is needed to expand the central government’s writ into the hinterland.
§ US failure to intervene constructively in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has exacerbated anti-Americanism among millions of Arabs, who see America as an enabler of Ariel Sharon’s destruction of the Palestinian Authority. In Pakistan, once a key ally in the war on terror, anti-Americanism has grown, engendering large gains by radical Islamist parties in the recent parliamentary election. These parties govern the Western Frontier states, where Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants have found sanctuary.
§ From airport baggage screening to container-port security, progress in making the country safe has been uneven. Facilities like nuclear plants, reservoirs and bridges remain vulnerable. As Katherine Eban documents on page 11, little progress has been made in setting up defenses against bioterrorism. Local governments, which provide the first response to terrorist attacks, point to the paucity of federal funding to meet the new threat. Yet the Administration remains fixated on lowering taxes.
§ Revelations of unreadiness and bungling at the FBI have shaken confidence in our primary counterterrorism arm. It took fourteen months for Congress to authorize a commission to investigate the role of FBI and intelligence failures in the success of the attacks; it must be completed before the system can be overhauled. Meanwhile, the Justice Department locks up hundreds of aliens with visa problems but catches precious few terrorists. Under John Ashcroft, more general than attorney, the chief innovations have been devising new ways to curtail civil liberties (recently Justice won a suit to expand its wiretapping authority under the USA Patriot Act) and the late, unlamented TIPS program that would have unleashed civilian snoops. At the Pentagon, John Poindexter, who in the Reagan Administration ran the “secret government” that gave us Iran/contra, presides over a five-year, $200 million program to develop a computerized database called Total Information Awareness, which will compile personal data on every one of us, including credit card purchases, travel and telephone records, and e-mail messages.
To date, the Administration’s antiterrorism effort has been spotty, politicized, corporate-friendly and subordinated to war against Iraq. A true national security policy would have as its goals making the UN Security Council an instrument of war prevention and disarmament, bringing about a legitimate Palestinian state by ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, promoting economic development and democracy in Arab nations and creating new programs of intelligence sharing and international policing of Al Qaeda and other terror gangs.
So, the answer is, no, we’re not safer these days.