- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The looming first anniversary of the war in Iraq, code named Operation Iraqi Freedom, will be partially eclipsed by last week’s horrific events in Madrid and the results of last Sunday’s Spanish national elections. Ten bombs, diabolically placed to exact maximum damage in the morning rush hour, claimed 200 lives and injured about 1,500 innocent civilians. Whether this monstrous act was the exclusive work of the Basque terrorist group ETA or an al-Qaeda-related atrocity purposely wrought two-and-a-half years to the day after the September 11 attacks against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon is not known yet.

The bloody events in Madrid that led to the defeat of the Aznar government should be another wake-up call. But will they be? Once the mourning is over, will this attack change anything in the battle to contain and eliminate the sources and causes of terror? If the ETA were found solely responsible, the answer would probably be no because of the absence of international links with global terrorism that have previously justified international responses.

The reality is grim. States face a daunting threat to their people and societies. The extent of this danger has not been fully recognized and appreciated. During the Cold War, the ultimate danger was war and the destruction of societies on both sides of the Iron Curtain in a nuclear holocaust. And any thermonuclear war would have had devastating effects even to innocent bystanders with no stake in the fight between East and West.

The Cold War has been over for more than a decade. Nuclear war, at least one in which the threat of massive destruction to many societies was real, has been averted. Despite the presence of nuclear and biological agents, the broader threat to society is no longer massive destruction. Instead, the relevant danger is one of massive disruption of society through real or threatened terrorist attack. This disruption affects all aspects of society, including governments, economies, public safety and well-being, and assaults standards and quality of life. Spain is the latest, tragic example of the power of disruption.

September 11 and its aftermath reinforced this point. The disruption was monumental and indeed probably “changed everything.” Beyond the huge physical and economic losses, hundreds of billions of dollars were redirected from other priorities to homeland security by governments and businesses. New laws strengthened the government’s capacity to combat terrorism, perhaps with unintended consequences on individual liberty. Restrictions on freedom and ease of action were imposed, from removing shoes at airport security checkpoints to routine fingerprinting and photographing of visitors regardless of proof of intent to do harm. Clearly, these often minor impositions constitute a chronic form of disruption.

The profound contradiction is that while the United States was never richer or stronger, it has never been more susceptible and vulnerable to disruption. To illustrate, suppose that the 10 explosive charges had been detonated not in Madrid but in the United States, something that al Qaeda has surely considered. What might be some of the possible consequences?

It is rush hour in the nation’s capital. At precisely 8:31 a.m., 10 large bombs simultaneously explode on the Key, Roosevelt, 14th Street and Wilson bridges, in overpasses and choke points on Routes 95, 395 and 495, and major interchanges along Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street. Or, presume that 10 bomb- laden trucks were driven into parking garages underneath a string of large buildings anywhere in the downtown area and were simultaneously detonated. Far more than 200 people would be killed. The chaos and disruption would be massive.

What should be learned from this nightmarish excursion, the attack in Madrid and the Spanish elections? First, unless or until the danger of disruption is fully incorporated into our collective thinking and our preventative responses, the effects of future terrorist incidents will be magnified well beyond any actual damage thatisimposed.President Franklin Roosevelt put this perfectly when he told his fellow citizens that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Second, unless and until the causes of terror are seriously addressed and remedied, we must understand that we and virtually all other states are at risk. The war on terror cannot and will not be won by eliminating would-be perpetrators one or a few at a time.

Finally, Americans have increasingly become risk averse. Our ancestors, from the first colonists to pioneers trekking west, understood hardships and dangers. The vagaries of weather and climate, along with disease, starvation and the hostility of unfriendly Indians and wild animals, were obvious and accepted risks. Today, the risks and dangers are still obvious. Whether we will accept this reality and act accordingly will be a decisive factor in determining our future safety and security.

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