Paper Tiger

by Sean Prophet

So....Al Qaeda and the Taliban turned out to be a paper tiger after all. Americans are anxious to forget about Bin Laden and get back to refinancing their homes at historically low interest rates. The holidays are here. Gary Condit is running for office once again. The Anthrax scare is winding down, and looks like it might have originated in our own country.

The impressive show of American air power worked its magic in Afghanistan. The Taliban imploded, even being slaughtered by Al Qaeda troops to prevent their surrender. Though Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders still prove elusive, their forces were thoroughly routed. A new government has been orchestrated, and there is hope that the people of Afghanistan might be able to concentrate on bettering themselves instead of fighting. Food shipments have resumed, refugees are going home, and it now seems less likely that millions will starve this winter. On the day Kabul fell, it was the height of irony, then, to walk down 3rd street promenade in Santa Monica: a lone peace demonstrator with a microphone ranted on about the evils of war. No one paid attention. Sometimes war works.

As the Irish prime minister said during his September visit with President Bush, "the terrorists are not ten feet tall." Indeed, in three short months, it seems a huge festering pustule of Anti-American violence has been lanced.

Does all this mean that we can relax and revel in our victories? Hardly.

The December Wired magazine featured a special report on the future of war. A smallpox bioterror scenario still has us woefully unprepared. This won't change until enough vaccine is made, and that won't be for a few years at best. Worldwide cells of terrorist organizations still operate. The terror network follows the principles of other distributed networks: they route around damage and continue to function. Civilization will not be safe until, in the words of Wired, the nodes are "isolated and ripped apart."

This report is worth the read, and I hope our leaders are reading, too. America has to rethink its concentrations of people, leadership and economic power. Our entire government operates within easy range of a single nuclear weapon. The Vice President has therefore been forced into hiding. But the houses of Congress are sitting ducks. We are vulnerable because we do everything on a grand scale. Bottlenecks abound, where small damage creates huge impact. We cannot quickly change this and still remain the nation we are. But we are not the nation we were September 10, 2001, and more changes may be in order.

Changes we make to fight terrorism, such as moving from large central power plants to smaller distributed nodes will benefit the environment and the quality of life as well. Maybe the government should run by a national super-video conference, leaving representatives in their home communities. We have to think outside the box. We have to build smarter cities, such as clusters of micro-metropolises separated by green space. Ideas for redundant and separate government computer networks are a step in the right direction. For too long, the drive for efficiency has made economics the only factor behind all allocation decisions. Unfortunately, there will be a cost to making our society less vulnerable. We can think of it as part of our military spending--It is a cost we must bear to prevent a greater tragedy.

Though we may be on high alert, and especially during the holidays, experts have said that the time to worry about more attacks could be at least 6 to 9 months following the WTC event. It may be even longer than that. The worldwide terrorist network has been dealt a severe blow, but when the dust settles, you can be sure they will be planning more operations. And our complacency is their greatest asset. It's what allowed September 11.

I'm hoping that the ease with which the Taliban were defeated does not lull us into a new false sense of security. Commando teams should not rest until every secret nuclear or biological lab around the world is dismantled or destroyed. The CIA should not rest until a complete worldwide inventory of weapons-grade nuclear material, and even nuclear waste, is completed. It is especially important that a part of any new arms control agreement with Russia includes absolute and firm international tracking of all warheads and nuclear waste materials.

I'm also hoping we have undertaken back-channel diplomatic initiatives. Governments have been behind almost all meaningful terrorist operations. Non-governmental terrorists just can't get organized or funded well enough. So if terrorists are planning a nuclear or biological strike on America, there has been or will be government complicity. There is a short list of governments that may be involved in this type of planning.

Conventional wisdom says deterrence doesn't work against terrorists. I think it can. We should let these governments know in no uncertain terms: a nuke detonates anywhere in the U.S. for any reason, then nuclear missiles will automatically be fired at the capitals of said governments. This is not different than the U.S. military doctrine practiced against the former Soviet Union. Ethicists debated the morality of deterrence endlessly. But it kept the peace for 50 years. Even though that type of retaliation would not necessarily hit the perpetrators, it would force those governments engaged in sponsorship to work overtime to stop such attacks. With the possibility that terrorist nuclear weapons have already been pre-positioned in the U.S., we must confront reality. We cannot afford to lose even one city. If we must use our might to intimidate Islamic terrorists, then so be it. Even such madmen must take a pause if their suicide attacks on this nation were to involve millions of innocent fellow Islamic citizens.

The Cold War held a spectre of devastation so unthinkable that it paralyzed us. MAD, we called it, Mutual Assured Destruction. The world would end and no one would be around to pick up the pieces.

These dedicated terrorists still cling to the hope that they can inflict destruction that is all too real and thinkable. The single nuclear bomb scenario is almost worse than MAD, because most of us would still be alive and have to live in a world we can't now imagine. And that's not a paper tiger.