One year later

After a year of trying to come to grips with the implications of the terrorist attack last Sept. 11, I'm becoming increasingly uncomfortable with our lack of progress in focusing all our assets on the problem at hand.

Sep 1st, 2002

WASHINGTON - After a year of trying to come to grips with the implications of the terrorist attack last Sept. 11, I'm becoming increasingly uncomfortable with our lack of progress in focusing all our assets on the problem at hand.

The first step in solving any problem is to define it. I think everyone can agree that the essence of the problem is the existence of small but well-financed and technologically sophisticated groups of fanatics that threaten our security in an increasingly porous world.

Our response to date has been predictable: first, reinforcing our own borders and, second, taking military actions against states such as Afghanistan that harbor the terrorists. Nor are those actions likely to be limited to Afghanistan.

Domestic security efforts have to be coordinated, and that's why Congress this month should wrap up the necessary approval of President Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

While the legislation sets an effective date of Jan. 1, 2003, for DHS to be a Cabinet-level agency, the reality is that it will exist mainly on paper at that point.

Auditors at the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, estimate it could take five to ten years before DHS can "provide meaningful and sustainable results."

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), meanwhile, is accelerating its counter-terrorism activities, an en deavor that was under way before the attack of last September.

DOD officials are already earmarking $2 billion a month of their budget to thwart terrorism, and that number is likely to grow to $3 billion. Add to that the proposed $38 billion annual budget for DHS, and annual outlays are already reaching more than $70 billion.

With that kind of money floating around Washington, the last thing this country - and the defense industry - needs is a financial scandal of Enron-WorldCom proportions.

There certainly seems to be solid public support for necessary public expenditures, but public opinion is a fickle thing. Unless there is observable progress, today's flag waving and supportive bumper stickers are likely to degenerate into finger pointing.

As a nation, we've been there before. During the even more traumatic days of World War II, an obscure Democratic senator from Missouri, Harry Truman, was so outraged by reports of contractor malfeasance in 1941 that he proposed, and was assigned to head, the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program.

His committee did find abuses, which were corrected, and public morale benefited as a result. The exercise also greatly enhanced Senator Truman's political career.

In fact, foreign dictators are very aware of the need for democracies to muster public support, and they count on this factor to limit the democracies' military response.

There's a term for this phenomenon around the Pentagon. It's called "the CNN war." The rationale is that when free people can see all the horrors of war brought into their homes nightly by Cable News Network, as they did during the Vietnam War, public support erodes. The good news is that more people in dictatorships are watching CNN, too.

In this context, I think it would be useful for the public to be aware of all the costs of what promises to be a long-term effort to counter terrorism. It's not just the DOD and DHS expenditures. The long lines at airport check-in counters also carry a cost to society.

There are other hidden costs. Gasoline prices are surely going to continue to rise. A nation obsessed with gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles is facing an uncomfortable moment of truth. I'm still getting 30 miles to the gallon in my 12-year-old Mazda pickup, and I often think if we were all doing that we could tell the greedy OPEC crowd where they could stick their oil.

I think it would also be useful to put the Sept. 11 attack in perspective and tailor our response accordingly. The death toll on that day appears to be about 2,400, well below early estimates.

With an annual highway death toll of 40,000 in this country (down from 50,000 a few years ago, thanks to safer vehicles and highways and better policing), the lives lost in the attack amount to about three weeks worth of highway fatalities.

Using the standard estimate that Americans average about a million dollars each in lifetime earnings, that amounts to a potential productivity loss of $40 billion. Cut that number in half on the assumption that the victims had completed half of their careers, and you still have an annual loss of $20 billion.

But these numbers don't tell the emotional side of the story. What really happened on Sept. 11 is that we discovered to our dismay how vulnerable we are. All our wealth and military prowess, which we used so effectively in the Cold War, proved inadequate in this changed environment.

At the risk of using a discredited Vietnam-era metaphor, I think we're going to have to change some hearts and minds if we're going to be successful in our efforts.

In his 2000 book, Nonzero, Robert Wright, former senior editor at The New Republic, argues that there has been an ongoing evolution of human behavior dating back to pre-agricultural days away from the concept of the zero-sum game, in which an inch gained by one side is of necessity an inch lost be the other.

The key to making this happen, according to Wright, is improved communication that reassures each side in a confrontation that they're better off cooperating than trying to grab it all.

We certainly don't lack the communications capabilities in our ever-shrinking world, and I think we Americans have a valid story to tell. Our peaceful intentions, always backed by military force as needed, are well known around the world.

That's how I envision a total response to the terrorism problem. Call it a carrot-and-stick approach if you will, but I think we need to reach out to the world's rational elements in what has become at least a temporary reversal of the trend toward greater global cooperation.

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