Jewish World Review May 29, 2002 /18 Sivan, 5762

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Consumer Reports

A real threat? | Have you seen "Spider-Man" or the new "Star Wars" movie? Gone out for pizza lately? Stopped at Starbucks for coffee? Have you attended a catered affair? Been to a shopping mall? A farmers market?

If you've done any of those things, you must be suicidal. After all, you've been persistently warned in recent days that suicide bombings in America like those that have murdered hundreds of Israelis are "inevitable" (FBI Director Robert Mueller), that new terrorist attacks are "not a question of if, but a question of when" (Homeland Security head Tom Ridge), and that another act of terror on US soil is "almost certain" (Vice President Dick Cheney). So why are you behaving so recklessly?

OK -- you're not really trying to get yourself killed. The reason you haven't altered your lifestyle -- the reason you still go to cafes, malls, and pizzerias despite knowing that such places make perfect targets for terrorist bombers -- is that the threat still doesn't seem real. A suicide bombing hasn't yet happened here. It hasn't yet happened to anyone you know. So even though you realize the administration's alarums are legitimate, you aren't acting on them.

Advance warnings rarely produce the same effect as bitter experience. We tend to react to threats only when they correlate with our own experience of reality. The horror of Sept. 11 is for all of us vivid and unsettling, which is why we are now willing to arrive at airports two hours before our flight and have our bags picked over by security agents -- even though we can still get to a movie theater five minutes before the screening and barely draw a glance from the ticket-taker.

But what if on Sept. 11 Al Qaeda had destroyed four crowded movie theaters, not four airliners? In that case, we would now be reserving movie tickets in advance and getting to the cineplex (with photo ID) two hours early -- while at the airport there would be no National Guardsmen and a few box cutters in your carry-on wouldn't raise any eyebrows.

Democrats were quick to criticize the Bush administration for not reacting more aggressively to the warning in a CIA briefing last August that Al Qaeda might try to hijack US planes, or to a July memo from an FBI agent in Phoenix raising the possibility that followers of Osama bin Laden might be training at American aviation schools. Of course, the president did take Al Qaeda seriously; he was the one who ordered the CIA briefing in the first place. And of course neither the briefing nor the memo envisioned terrorists using airplanes as missiles to attack skyscrapers and government buildings.

Still, suppose the warning bells the critics suggest should have gone off did go off. Suppose the FBI descended on the country's 2,000-plus flight schools and began interrogating every student from the Middle East. Suppose the Federal Aviation Administration gave orders to scrutinize carry-on luggage and issued a long list of items to be banned from planes, from knives to scissors to baseball bats. Suppose pilots were authorized to eject Arab ticket-holders they found suspicious.

It isn't hard to imagine the howls that would have issued from enraged passengers, or the speed with which Congress would have condemned the administration's "hysteria," or the anger and scorn (and lawsuits) that the government's "ethnic profiling" would have drawn. Measures that came to seem reasonable post-Sept. 11 would have been regarded as outrageous and intolerable before then.

It is easy after the fact to ask why the dots weren't connected so precautions could be taken. After the fact we know exactly which dots to search for and what the final picture is going to look like. Before the fact, it isn't always clear that the dots are dots, let alone what pattern they fit or how credible they are. The FBI agent who raised a red flag about potential terrorists at flight schools was certainly prescient, but what about all the other red flags raised last July -- or last August, or last year -- that weren't prescient at all?

For example, what about a threat from female Sri Lankan suicide bombers slipping over the Canadian border and using a small explosives-laden submarine to destroy a Navy warship and kill its crew? Outlandish, of course. Or is it? As William Saletan showed last week in Slate, there are any number of clues in recent intelligence literature hinting at just such an atrocity. Should the FBI and CIA be connecting those dots? Or is the threat from Tamil Tigresses too far-fetched to worry about? The feds can't chase down every memo, pursue every warning, follow up every lead. Choices have to be made. And clues that seem glaring after an attack has occurred can be easy to overlook amid the background "noise" beforehand.

None of which is to say that there aren't serious shortcomings in the US intelligence services -- especially in the seeming inability of the FBI and CIA to cooperate in assimilating and acting on information about possible terror threats. Far from fighting the creation of an independent commission to figure out why the government was caught sleeping on Sept. 11, President Bush ought to have proposed it. A lot of questions are being asked, and only by getting at the answers can the administration be better prepared next time. As it keeps telling us, there will be a next time.

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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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