Forget vague warnings and relax - we're winning

May 23, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - Ah, excuse me, but could we all just calm down here?

What started as a story about how the Bush team handled unspecific warnings about possible terrorist attacks in the United States before Sept. 11 has now prompted the Bushies not only to defend themselves from charges of irresponsibility - which they are entitled to do - but to go on a binge of Chicken Little warnings that another attack is imminent, inevitable and around the corner, but we can't tell you when, where or how.

Look, in the wake of Sept. 11, I would never rule out any kind of attack. But I'm no more interested in indicting the Bush team for failing to respond to an unspecific warning about a possible terrorist attack before Sept. 11 than I'm interested in having the vice president and FBI director warn us about the certainty of an unspecified attack sometime in the future.

What are we supposed to do with this information? Never go into another apartment building, because reports suggest an al-Qaida cell may rent an apartment just to blow up the whole structure? Don't go outside? Don't go near national monuments? Pat the belly of every pregnant woman to check if she's a suicide bomber?

Who wants to live that way? Let's make a deal: We won't criticize the administration for not anticipating Sept. 11 if it won't terrorize the country by now predicting every possible nightmare scenario, but no specific ones, post-Sept. 11. Not only are these "warnings" just unnerving the public when people were finally starting to calm down, but they are also obscuring something very important: We are winning this war.

No, it's not over. And yes, I too will say for the record that sometime, somewhere, there will be another attack. But in the meantime we've actually accomplished a lot. If Osama bin Laden is alive, a big if, his ability to direct acts of terrorism against U.S. targets has been disrupted.

That is important, because bin Laden and his top deputies were a smart, creative and daring group of terrorists, who do not come along every day. And whether they are all dead or deep in hiding, there is no indication they are in business now.

Yes, probably less professional cells still exist and can still wreak havoc. But when you decapitate an organization like al-Qaida, and disrupt its money flow, you've done a lot. And when you oust the Taliban in Afghanistan and take away the one true safe harbor for bin Laden - for training and operations - you've also done a lot.

We have put in place reasonable precautions at airports; we have instituted better coordination between the FBI, CIA and INS; we are tracking foreign students more closely; and we and our allies have detained thousands of suspects. The fact that there has been no other major incident since Sept. 11 is surely not because the terrorists have abandoned their intentions. It is because we have hampered their capabilities. That is a good thing.

But the very nature of this war against small groups and individuals bent on terrorism is that you can never win it definitively. It will be with us forever. But we can limit the number of attacks if our officials responsible for this war are not spending all day mindlessly terrorizing the public with unspecified, cover-your-behind warnings.

This is absolutely not an argument for a free pass for the Bush team. Given the stories about intelligence failures that have come out already, we clearly need a special commission, led by professionals, not politicians, to look into the decade-long history of our handling of al-Qaida and explore why we did not have better intelligence, why the dots were not connected and how to improve in the future.

But the other thing we need to do is grow up. If we're going to maintain an open society, all we can do is take all reasonable precautions and then suck it up and learn to live with a higher level of risk. That is our fate, so let's not drive ourselves crazy.

I don't know about you, but my Memorial Day weekend plans are set: golf Saturday, bike trip Sunday, barbecue Monday. If the FBI director wants to interrupt my weekend with a specific warning, I'll be all ears; otherwise, pipe down and chill out. Remember, it's supposed to be al-Qaida that's running scared, not us.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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