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Is America ready for another attack?

By Times wires and staff reports

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 2002


What will we do if it happens again?

What will we do if it happens again?

What should we expect, and how will we react?

Are emergency services up to the challenge?

Will we be as generous with the families of victims as we were after 9/11?

Government leaders have repeatedly warned the nation to expect another terrorist attack. We are a free nation with open borders, they remind us, and terrorists have a nearly unlimited arsenal to choose from: guns, chemicals, bombs and boxcutters.

Meanwhile, our actions around the world since Sept. 11 probably have increased the number of people eager to do us harm.

"Without doubt, there will be an attack, probably sooner rather than later," said Gregory Treverton, a terrorism expert at the RAND think tank, which conducts research for the Pentagon and other national security agencies.

So, what happens if they strike us a second time? A third? A fourth?

Some terrorism experts say the next attack might be a far less ambitious undertaking than the operation a year ago.

"This is symbolic warfare," said George Washington University professor Jerrold Post, a former CIA analyst and expert witness in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing trial.

"A major goal is to weaken the economic fabric and supremacy of the nation," Post said. That leads him and other analysts to believe the next attack could be against targets that represent U.S. economic power and cultural influence. Wall Street, banks and the entertainment industry -- which Islamic extremists blame for spreading "moral pollution" worldwide -- would fit those bills.

How ready the nation is remains to be seen.

Though the Bush administration has invested hundreds of millions of dollars during the past year to strengthen the nation's defenses against a biological attack, for example, experts say the United States remains highly vulnerable to bioterrorism, particularly strikes on the food supply.

The public health system, which was stretched thin during the anthrax attacks of the fall, has received nearly $1-billion in the past year.

States have used the money for plans to cope with a germ attack, and some are already hiring workers who can respond to intentional attacks or natural outbreaks of diseases like West Nile virus.

"Each day we are getting stronger," said Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services. Even so, significant shortcomings remain.

Relief experts face daunting challenges in planning for an attack. Where will it come? When? In what form?

"In preparing for disasters in the past, we were always able to map vulnerabilities and risks -- we knew coastal states were more vulnerable to hurricanes, the Midwest to flooding," said Rick Augsburger, an emergency-response coordinator with Church World Service.

"With terrorism, the entire country is impacted and traumatized."

One sensitive matter likely to be handled differently after future attacks is compensation of victims' families. The Bush administration has proposed that future terrorism compensation awards be capped at $250,000, matching the amount provided to families of public safety officers killed in the line of duty.

This would be far lower than the estimated average payment of $1.85-million expected to be awarded to families from the federal Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund.

Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the Sept. 11 fund, said federal policymakers appear to be realizing that multimillion-dollar, tax-free awards can't be guaranteed in perpetuity to all families of future terrorism victims. Families of those killed in future attacks shouldn't feel entitled automatically to large federal payouts, he said.

"If somebody saves three children, then drowns in a flood, they don't get $250,000."

On a brighter note, after 12 months of nervously looking over our shoulders, there have been no followup attacks, at least domestically.

Why? Experts point to several possible reasons:

-- Al-Qaida is laying low. Conventional wisdom, particularly on Capitol Hill and within some law enforcement circles, holds that the global terror network led by Osama bin Laden has "sleeper cells" in position in America, quietly working on an attack, or several, that might already have been in the planning phase for a year or more.

-- Al-Qaida has been fundamentally crippled by a global dragnet. While bin Laden remains unaccounted for, more than half of his top 30 deputies have been captured or killed, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. At most recent count, more than 2,400 individuals believed to be al-Qaida operatives have been detained around the world.

-- Post-9/11 security measures have so hardened U.S. air travel, power plants, government buildings and other prime targets that prospective terrorists now consider trying to attack them a waste of time and effort. Instead, they may be looking for new vulnerabilities to exploit.

-- A full-bore U.S. investigative and intelligence blitz has derailed plots in progress before they could be carried out.

But if there is another attack, how will Americans -- often seen as spoiled and self-centered -- react?

"The answer does not depend upon the type or severity of attack," said Col. Dave McIntyre, deputy director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, a not-for-profit research organization that has been examining security issues since its formation in 1999.

"It depends entirely upon the American people," he said. "Do they understand what makes them different, and are they willing to suffer to protect that difference?"

"The nation's response on 11 September a year ago was admirable," he said. "After the shock wore off, we rushed to the disaster to undo the damage -- to the buildings, to the people, and to our nation. Can we keep that up if there are more disasters?

"Only if we understand in our heads what America is about. Only if we put the knowledge of that truth into our children's heads. No terror from overseas can drive it out. Only we ourselves can decide that liberty is not worth the trouble. Only we ourselves can decide the value of the Republic, and whether to pay the price required."

-- Compiled by Times staff writer David Ballingrud with information from the Associated Press, Scripps Howard News Service, New York Times and Washington Post.

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