Accessibility links

U.S.: Terror Attack Highlights Unprecedented Threat

  • Andrew Tully

For more than a century and a half, the U.S. protected its citizens by amassing armed forces skilled in conventional warfare. After World War II, it had to adapt to the additional threat of nuclear weapons. Now, after yesterday's [11 September] terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, it faces a new security threat. RFE/RL senior correspondent Andrew F. Tully spoke with national security analysts about this new era of war.

Washington, 12 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Security analysts say yesterday's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington may herald an unprecedented new form of threat to the U.S., and they say the country must be prepared for it.

For most of its history, America prepared itself for conventional threats, and maintained a strong military force. During the Cold War, there was a new kind of threat -- nuclear warfare, which would not be fought by conventional forces, but by voracious bombs.

Now, it is clear that America must also face another kind of non-conventional warfare: that waged by those who would hijack airplanes and fly them into densely occupied buildings.

At the heart of this new threat may be U.S. foreign policy itself. As the only superpower, America often tries to help solve disputes in distant reaches of the world. Ted Galen Carpenter -- vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a private policy-research institute in Washington -- told RFE/RL that such intervention has inherent national security risks.

"I think at the very least we have to factor in this cost and risk as part of the calculation. You know, 'Do we want to be deeply involved in other people's quarrels if it can result in this kind of retaliation?'"

Carpenter says it is time that the U.S. either reconsiders its foreign policy, or begins preparing to meet the threats that it may engender.

James Phillips -- an analyst with the Heritage Foundation, another Washington policy center -- says Washington should have begun such preparations nearly a decade ago, in 1993, after the first attack on the World Trade Center. The loss of life was far lower in that act of terrorism, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000. But Phillips told RFE/RL that it should have alerted the U.S. to the threat posed by international terrorists.

But Phillips says this change probably will not have a dramatic effect on the way the military is trained. Instead, he said, it will probably mean strict tightening of security at airports, particularly for domestic flights.

Phillips says passengers for international flights already face rigorous security, but checks for those flying within the U.S. are much looser. He notes that all the flights involved in yesterday's terrorism were domestic.

Beyond airport security, Phillips says he expects a shift in emphasis for America's intelligence and counterintelligence forces. So far, he says, the U.S. has devoted most of its intelligence involving terrorism to groups operating outside the country, and has even increased it greatly in recent years. Now, he says, that focus may include foreign terrorists acting within America's borders.

"Perhaps there might be more attention paid to terrorists attacks inside the country."

Several analysts interviewed by RFE/RL compared yesterday's coordinated attacks to Pearl Harbor, the surprise Japanese attack on American naval forces in Hawaii that brought the U.S. into World War II.

Because yesterday's attacks were so bold, some analysts believe the terrorists may have achieved an important goal -- bringing attention to the vulnerability of the world's only military superpower. But their satisfaction may be short-lived, according to Kenneth Allard, a security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy institute.

"This phrase has recurred to me all morning long, and it was what [World War II Japanese naval commander] Admiral Yammamoto said when he learned that the attack on Pearl Harbor had been successful. He said, 'All I fear that we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.'"

The comparison between yesterday's attacks and Pearl Harbor are not far-fetched. Both were mounted against an unprepared country. And, as with Pearl Harbor, the terrorist attacks likely will require the U.S. to take an entirely new approach to its enemies.

But it appears that the two incidents are very different in terms of loss of life. Fewer than 2,400 people -- most of them military personnel -- died in the Japanese attack. There is no way yet to know how many died in yesterday's attacks.

But one thing is known: Every day, about 50,000 people work in and around the two 110-story buildings that made up the World Trade Center. So far, it is unclear how many of these thousands could have been evacuated before the two steel-and-glass towers collapsed into a heap of bloody rubble.

XS
SM
MD
LG