Missile defense is nation's insurance

September 20, 2001|By Neal Lavon

WASHINGTON -- Since the Sept. 11 attack was launched from within the United States by terrorists using hijacked jetliners, critics of President Bush's proposed National Missile Defense plan are rushing to point out that there is absolutely no need to spend "hundreds of millions of dollars" on such a system.

See, they say, an NMD system would have done absolutely nothing to prevent last week's attack. The so-called "rogue nations" and terrorist cells don't possess a nuclear capability (that we know of) and will instead employ "improvised weaponry," so it would be a waste of resources to spend the millions necessary to erect a missile defense system, if it worked at all. Let's put the money somewhere else.

These actually are fair questions to raise under the present circumstances. But when you do ask them, it's just as easy to arrive at the opposite conclusion: Given the determination and surprising capabilities of our enemies, a system of national missile defense may be the best insurance we have of preventing future terrorist attacks whose death toll will be measured not in thousands but in millions.

While it's true that an NMD system would not have prevented the suicide attacks, it may prevent the next round of terrorist attacks.

It is not infeasible to think that Iraq or North Korea or some two dozen other countries could "lose," give, or sell a ballistic missile to an Osama bin Laden or his counterparts.

Would they use it?

Given the escalation of terrorist acts -- from hijacking planes and ransoming hostages to explosions in buses and airports to this past week's jetiner crashes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon -- the next logical progression could very well be the nightmare scenario that could involve a nuclear or biological strike against an American city, a capital or even multiple targets.

Terrorists wouldn't even have to launch such an attack. The threat of one may be enough to deter the United States from acting in its security or foreign policy interests. But with a system of missile defense, we could still engage internationally while our adversaries would the ones put under threat.

Will NMD work?

Skeptics abound, although some tests have proved promising. Will it be effective against dozens of incoming missiles? Probably not, but it may work against one terrorist-launched missile that could still save millions of lives.

The technological challenges are daunting, and there will always be naysayers.

Scientists were still debating whether the atom bomb would work until the time it was successfully tested in 1945.

You can always find someone to say, "no," but scientific progress has always been made by those willing to keep at it until the answer is "yes."

Is it worth the cost?

I'm reminded of President Bush's environmental critics who were quick to recommend spending millions -- if not billions -- to support the costs of the Kyoto treaty on global warming.

Even though global warming wasn't "proved," they said, isn't it better to spend the money now in case the Kyoto advocates were right? It's called the "precautionary principle," and while global warming may prove a distant threat, or no threat at all, the carnage left from the Sept. 11 attacks shows that the threat from terrorism is all too real, and likely to grow worse -- much worse -- in the future.

Neal Lavon reports on foreign and domestic events from Washington.

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