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“The Times Square Bomb Failed. What Will We Do When The Next Bomb Works?”

May 9th, 2010 · No Comments

In today’s Washington Post Outlook section, former presidential terrorism adviser Richard Clarke has an op-ed piece, The Times Square Bomb Failed. What Will We Do When The Next Bomb Works.” Clarke’s overall theme is that another terror attack is inevitable, and “right now, after a near-miss, there is a better opportunity to adjust than in an emotionally charged period when the nation is mourning.”

Clarke thinks it would be ideal “if leaders could come together now and agree on a few key points about our efforts to battle terrorism” Most of his proposals are directed at political officials, however, those politicians will also act based on how their constituents react. So, while the “We” in the article’s headline may refer more to our leaders, there is also a role here for we the citizens. Below are three of Clarke’s points that I think are particularly relevant for the public:

First, no matter how good a job our government does in protecting the homeland, we must anticipate that someday another terrorist may succeed. If that happens, we will refine our tactics and procedures, but we will not overreact…

Fifth, as willing as we may be to pay a high price to rid ourselves of terrorism, throwing more money at the problem or abandoning our civil liberties and way of life will not reduce the threat, nor will it accelerate the day when it disappears.

Sixth, in an attempt to show that we are doing something new after an attack, we should not adopt procedures that inconvenience the public more than they do the terrorists and amount to little more than security theater.

The full op-ed can be found here. At the bottom of the Clarke article on the Post’s website is an article by Stephen Flynn, President of the Center For National Policy, and one of the leading experts on societal resilience.

Flynn’s piece, “5 Myths About Keeping America Safe,” was published after a previous failed terror attempt — the Christmas Day ‘Underwear Bomber’. (The blog was on hiatus in January so I’m going to post it now) He writes:

With President Obama declaring a “systemic failure” of our security system in the wake of the attempted Christmas bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, familiar arguments about what can and should be done to reduce America’s vulnerabilities are again filling the airwaves, editorial pages and blogosphere. Several of these arguments are based on assumptions that guided the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — and unfortunately, they are as unfounded now as they were then. The biggest whopper of all? The paternalistic assertion that the government can keep us all safe without our help.

All his myth rebutting is useful, but I couldn’t help but excerpt the last one:

5. Average citizens aren’t an effective bulwark against terrorist attacks.

Elite pundits and policymakers routinely dismiss the ability of ordinary people to respond effectively when they are in harm’s way. It’s ironic that this misconception has animated much of the government’s approach to homeland security since Sept. 11, 2001, given that the only successful counterterrorist action that day came from the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93. These passengers didn’t have the help of federal air marshals. The Defense Department’s North American Aerospace Defense Command didn’t intercept the plane — it didn’t even know the airliner had been hijacked. But by charging the cockpit over rural Pennsylvania, these private citizens prevented al-Qaeda terrorists from reaching their likely target of the U.S. Capitol or the White House. The government leaders whose constitutional duty is “to provide for the common defense” were defended by one thing alone — an alert and heroic citizenry.

This misconception is particularly reckless because it ends up sidelining the greatest asset we have for managing the terrorism threat: the average people who are best positioned to detect and respond to terrorist activities. We have only to look to the attempted Christmas Day attack to validate this truth. Once again it was the government that fell short, not ordinary people. A concerned Nigerian father, not the CIA or the National Security Agency, came forward with crucial information. And the courageous actions of the Dutch film director Jasper Schuringa and other passengers and crew members aboard Flight 253 thwarted the attack.

I wanted to post one more related document, “Would Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist Radicalization in the United States since September 11, 2001,” by the Rand Corporation’s Brian Michael Jenkins. This report concludes that while Islamic radicalization here is obviously a “serious threat…effective intelligence gathering and a Muslim community unsympathetic to calls to violence have discouraged homegrown jihadist terrorism in the United States.”

There was one excerpt from the report’s press release that I wanted to mention, because I think it’s relevant to the mindset that both Clarke and Flynn believe the nation needs to develop on terrorism:

Public reaction is a key component of homeland defense, Jenkins said. Needless alarm, exaggerated portrayals of the terrorist threat, unrealistic expectations of a risk-free society and unreasonable demands for absolute protection will only encourage terrorists and further inspire would-be jihadists.

“So long as America’s psychological vulnerability is on display, jihadists will find inspiration, and more recruitment and terrorism will occur,” Jenkins said.

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