A Barricaded Society

ROBERT RENO

March 12, 1993|By ROBERT RENO

At the cost of a few hundred billion dollars, it would probably be possible to make all the nation's major office towers, the most vulnerable points of our telephone systems and power grids, all nuclear facilities, the largest metropolitan water supplies as well as key rail and highway bridges and tunnels, marginally safer from terrorist attack.

But then we'd have to ask ourselves, to what hideous new extremes of imagination would terrorists be driven in order to make their point?

We can be fairly certain that if the World Trade Center, at considerable cost and inconvenience to the people who do business there, had banned all transient vehicles from its parking garages, the February 26 attack could have been avoided. But we can be just as certain that the terrorists involved would then have felt compelled to attack elsewhere with results that might have been more tragic and more destructive.

I'm not even going to mention what they are, but there are several dozen places in the New York area alone, many of them highly accessible, where a bomb attack as powerful as that at the World Center would have caused vastly greater loss of life and property damage as well as incalculably higher levels of business disruption, public suffering and inconvenience. Trust me on this.

So we have to ask ourselves, is this the time to encourage American business and government to undertake vast new preventive security costs to protect against the randomness of terrorism?

In Manhattan alone, the evidence of new security measures is widespread. There is a prevalent mentality that suggests, for public consumption at least, that America or even New York can somehow be made terrorist-proof, or at least very nearly so.

Yet if, on the broad assumption that this most recent attack will inspire others, we carry this attitude to its logical conclusion, we could end up with a fundamentally more barricaded society that is not fundamentally less vulnerable to terrorism.

Even if we can make all buildings safe from fertilizer bombs, the measures necessary to make major population centers safe from exotic forms of radiological, chemical and biological attack simply do not exist. Even to the extent that we erect visible defenses against such attacks, we identify points of civic vulnerability to the observant terrorist. And the added costs, which do not increase efficiency or profitability, will be a net drag on the nation's productivity and competitiveness.

Investments in personnel and technology that will enhance counterterrorist intelligence and provide for the swift apprehension of terrorists are likely to yield far higher returns and to provide a far higher degree of deterrence.

Putting it in perspective, we ought to ask ourselves whether indigenous, poverty-driven violence, crime, sociopathic behavior and urban social alienation aren't far greater daily, ongoing threats to the national stability, to the livability of cities, to life and to property, than the occasional destructive statement of foreign terrorists.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

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