Aspen Ideas speakers discuss preparing for next 9/11
July 1, 2011
ASPEN – The current U.S. strategy in the war against al-Qaida is like a fireman turning his hose on the flames, but never hitting the embers. The “capture and kill” strategy that famously took out bin Laden fails to douse the burning coals of hatred that are fanned again and again into flames. Terrorism arises in a stubborn conflagration that threatens to scorch the Western world.
Despite the “Secret War Against al-Qaida” described by Pentagon correspondent Thom Shanker, where the “pervasive stare” of drone aircraft redefines surveillance since Sept. 11, terrorist cells remain very much alive and active. Asked what the impact is of bin Laden’s death, Shanker said, “Bin Laden was an ideological hero. If he becomes a martyr, the al-Qaida brand will grow. We can keep al-Qaida on its heels, but we’ll never stop it. The best we can do is to hold off the next attack.”
In a following session, Phillip Zelikow, professor of history at the University of Virginia, explained that the reason al-Qaida has not launched a repeat Sept. 11 attack at scale in almost a decade is because “we have set them on the run and interrupted their operational capabilities.” Zelikow spoke on a panel titled “Could 9/11 Happen Again?” The short answer to that dubious question was: very likely.
Terrorists are more challenged now than they were before Sept. 11, said Zelikow, because al-Qaida and its operatives are hard-pressed to move under the intelligence radar. Travel has been restricted, surveillance has increased, and public awareness is higher, making a large scale attack problematic. Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said it will be more common for al-Qaida to recruit and train operatives in place than to move them around. The most common terrorist acts today are being executed by small bands of well-armed operatives who shoot up and bomb their targets.
Rather than offering reassure to the crowd in the Doerr-Hosier Center, Jane Harmon, former U.S. representative from California, warned about dirty bombs (explosives laced with radioactivity) as one of the easiest techniques for causing major disruptions in urban areas. Another panelist tossed out mass mailings of anthrax letters as another simple but potentially crippling assault on the U.S.
Mike McConnell, former U.S. director of National Intelligence, warned of cyber attacks that could take out vital services like electric grids and communication systems, turning the country upside down.
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One could almost hear the audience biting its fingernails as this litany of horrors washed over them. “How,” one audience member asked, “are average citizens supposed to react to all this?” There was no comforting answer, no reassurance, other than a suggestion to maintain vigilance and upgrade national security measures. That’s when Zelikow dropped a bomb of his own. “The president,” he said, raising his hand as if for a swearing-in, “is not sworn to protect the lives of the American people. The president is sworn to defend and protect the Constitution.”
Losing American lives to terrorists is a national tragedy, but the loss of Constitutional rights as a result of terrorist crackdowns is perhaps the deeper target in the cross-hairs of terrorist networks. Curtailing American freedom and privacy becomes perhaps the more enduring result of their missions.
Moderator Jeffrey Goldberg asked Chertoff what he thought of the 93-year-old woman who was recently made to strip off her geriatric diaper for airport security. Such humiliation, suggested Goldberg, represents an excessive use of authority. Chertoff replied that security cannot be arbitrary, that there are no innocent profiles. For example, he said, the deranged man who shot up the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., was a harmless 93.
Security efforts may douse the flames of terrorism, but the embers continue to smolder. What keeps those embers hot? Zelikow gave a simple but compelling answer. “The chief conflict,” he said, “is the modernity of Islam.”
Strict Muslims unable to cope with the modern world blame the U.S. and the West in general for injurious influences and sacrilege. Globalization and the Internet continue pushing taboos into traditionally closed cultures. The flat world Thomas Friedman wrote about makes American lifestyles and values more influential, while making America more vulnerable.
“Some people are deeply alienated,” warned Zelikow, “and they react with rage and dreams.”
The result is frustration, anger, hostility, desperation and militant action. The flames of a new insurgency were rising from insurgent embers even as bin Laden was shot in his bed by Navy Seals. The danger is not over with his death. At risk today in the post-Sept. 11 U.S. are the security of the American people and the very foundations of American freedom.