Jewish World Review August 5, 2003 / 7 Menachem-Av, 5763

John C. Bersia

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It's time to be realistic on new age of terrorism | As the clock counts down to the second anniversary of Sept. 11, Americans have not adapted as well as I had hoped to the age of terrorism.

Too many people continue to search for scapegoats, express surprise at terrorists' excesses, and behave in a manner that suggests either near-panic or hopelessness.

Some have chosen to heap criticism upon the federal government, particularly the FBI and CIA, for shortcomings in confronting terrorism - notably on 9-11. Others have wrung their hands over new threats, such as the resurfacing of schemes to convert aircraft into devastating bombs. Still others have speculated about the advisability of raising the color-coded - and largely unheeded - terrorist-threat-alert level. Yet others have simply thrown up their hands, resigning themselves to whatever fate al-Qaeda and its global cohorts concoct.

Instead, Americans should come to grips with terrorism as a fact of life, psychologically bolster themselves to deal with the issue during the long haul, and endeavor - assiduously, not vindictively - to fix problems of coordination and cooperation that have plagued U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Otherwise, they could inadvertently serve al-Qaeda's interests by creating the appearance of weakness, infighting and disarray.

Nothing al-Qaeda says, plans, provokes or does should surprise anyone. At this stage in the war against terrorism, the group has demonstrated a shocking lack of self-restraint. Its behavior is innovative, relentless, self-justifying, deadly and remorseless. To minimize the sense of surprise, Americans should develop a better understanding of al-Qaeda's capabilities and rationally anticipate the forms that the next attack might take.

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Clearly, the organization - which has regrouped and re-energized its operatives - presents a dangerous and growing threat. To the extent that al-Qaeda succeeds in building a global alliance of like-minded terrorist groups in response to the war against terrorism, it heightens the risk of attacks.

Further, al-Qaeda has called for its campaign to focus on the continental United States, without neglecting opportunities to strike at U.S. interests worldwide. From the writings of those sympathetic to al-Qaeda's cause, potential targets come into view. In addition to U.S. iconic structures, government buildings, transportation systems and other sites, they include: international corporations, communications systems and news media; the United Nations; countries - especially Muslim ones - that work with the United States; and international relief agencies.

In response, the United States and its allies must engage in a sustained effort that strives to exceed the creativity, guile and resourcefulness of the terrorists.

Part of that effort requires getting to the bottom of mistakes and missteps that allowed terrorists too much leeway before and on Sept. 11. But it's essential to underscore that the catastrophe did not result simply from the errors committed at that time. It stemmed from the collective failure of several presidential administrations, Democrat and Republican, to take the danger of terrorism seriously and to fuse U.S. counterterrorism capabilities into a coherent and effective force.

That failure happened despite ample warnings, from within and outside government, for years.

Had President George W. Bush's predecessors acted aggressively against terrorism, could the nation have avoided 9-11?

As comforting as a "yes" would be, no one can honestly make that case. Even Sen. Bob Graham, former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a serious student of these matters, acknowledged as much after the recently released 9-11 congressional report.

"The attacks of September 11 could have been prevented if the right combination of skill, cooperation, creativity and some good luck had been brought to the task," he stated. The "good luck" reference says volumes.

Beyond that debate, it's worth noting that the United States and its allies have made solid progress in working together to combat terrorism. They have taken the battle to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere; enhanced security at airports and other facilities; improved intelligence-sharing; arrested thousands of suspected al-Qaeda operatives; and moved to restrict terrorists' access to financial resources. Most important, they have thwarted dozens of al-Qaeda schemes in various stages of planning or execution.

That knowledge should help boost the optimism that Americans will frequently need as the age of terrorism unfolds.

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John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, is also the special assistant to the president for global perspectives and a professor at the University of Central Florida. Comment by clicking here.


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