The Bomb in a Suitcase

In a speech at the Joint Forces Command headquarters in Norfolk, Va., on Feb. 13, President George W. Bush warned that national security can be endangered in two new ways. We must confront the threats that come on a missile, he saidpresumably referring to possible attacks from hostile nations like North Korea and Iranand we must confront the threats that come in a shipping container or a suitcasenuclear, biological or chemical weapons that terrorists could smuggle in crates or luggage.

To meet the first threat, Mr. Bush, taking up a notion that had some allure for both President Reagan and President Clinton, proposed in a speech on May 1 that the United States build a vast system of interceptors that would shield it from strategic ballistic missiles. So far as the average citizen knows, this system is only in the planning stage, and the president is far from persuading most of our allies and many in Congress that the scheme should go any further. America has already argued (editorial, 4/2) that the missile defense system would be an arrogant and wasteful folly.

President Bush announced on May 8 that Vice President Dick Cheney will be overseeing the development and coordination of anti-terrorist measures and that a new Office of National Preparedness will plan for dealing with the consequences of an attack. Wise precautions, surely, but the response to terrorism must itself be balanced and coherent.

During the Feb. 13 broadcast of the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, Delaware’s Senator Joseph Biden, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Richard Perle, who was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, debated the wisdom of a national missile defense system. Senator Biden said he thought the infiltration of a bomb hidden in the bottom of a tramp steamer was a greater threat than the possibility that Saddam Hussein might acquire a missilea circumstance that Mr. Perle had stressed. But Mr. Biden and Mr. Perle agreed that both threats are real and that the United States must be concerned with both possibilities.

For most Americans, the possibility of a terrorist attack not in some faraway place abroad, but here at home, is a new prospect. Two developments have, however, created just this possibility. Technical advances have made it easy to put devastating amounts of explosive or of chemical or biological weapons into readily portable packages, and the expansion of world travel makes it easy to carry these destructive devices to targets almost anywhere. The protection once afforded by the geographic isolation of the United States has been eroded.

Moreover, the bombings at New York City’s World Trade Center in 1993 and at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City two years later showed that terrorist objectives are no longer limited to targets of strategic importance. The potential threat is to everyone everywhere, including children in day-care centers.

Given these terrifying realities, there is likely to be increased emphasis on internal security once the president and Congress turn more of their attention to that possibility of a bomb in a suitcase. There will be presidential executive orders, Congressional legislation and increased surveillance of suspects by police and prosecutors.

We have no higher priority than the defense of our people against terrorist attack, said the president in Norfolk. No need to quarrel with that rhetoric, but there is a need to remember that civil liberties are also national goods that need vigilant defense. The public, particularly if it is inflamed by the press, can easily become hypersensitive to issues of security and excitable in dealing with them. The internment of West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II showed how quickly the mere suspicion that security is being endangered can lead to cruel violations of basic freedoms.

When executive orders aimed at terrorists are issued or relevant laws passed or budgetary appropriations made, they should include firm instructions for the protection of those civil liberties that the law itself guarantees. Law enforcement officials, particularly district attorneys, must insist on this with their staffs. There is a middle way here between the doctrinaire civil libertarians who automatically oppose any surveillance for the collection of information and those honest citizens who would in an emergency brush off a concern for civil liberties.

It would be a mistake to ignore the threat of terrorism, and it would be a mistake to compromise the liberties that are among the values by which the nation lives when it is most true to its ideals. Terrorists could claim a great victory if they managed to undermine those civil liberties.

10 years 6 months ago
I usually receive America four months late, and the May 21 issue just arrived. The editorial, “The Bomb in a Suitcase,” was very prophetic and uncannily anticipated the events of Sept. 11, showing a very accurate analysis of the “signs of the times” and how we can engage them. Four months late or not, I always look forward to receiving America and the encouragement it gives me to promote Jesus’ kingdom in this part of the world.

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