Americans show dangerous naivete about terrorism

September 19, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - Apparently, some of us have forgotten the attack on the World Trade Center.

I'm not talking about 9/11, but 2/26. It was on that day in 1993 that a car bomb exploded in an underground garage. Six people were killed, a thousand injured.

Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the mastermind of that attack, was eventually captured and given a life sentence. A wealthy Saudi businessman was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. His name: Osama bin Laden.

That this episode has been largely forgotten seems obvious when you consider the strained logic some people are using to defend President Bush against charges that he blundered in invading Iraq. They contend the war has kept the country safe by putting the terrorists on the defense.

It's an argument I hear often. As a man named John Nastro put it in a letter to New York Newsday: "How many terrorist attacks have been made on our country since 9/11?"

The White House has wholeheartedly encouraged that line of thinking.

"We are staying on the offensive - striking terrorists abroad, so we do not have to face them here at home," said President Bush this month in New York.

So here's my question. It has been three years since al-Qaida struck New York City. Before that, the last foreign terrorist attack on U.S. soil - not counting a lone Palestinian gunman who killed a tourist at the Empire State Building - was the one in 1993. If three years without an attack validates Mr. Bush's policies, what do eight years without one do for Bill Clinton's? If a three-year respite makes Mr. Bush a hero, what does an eight-year respite do for his predecessor?

Or is fighting terrorism perhaps a little more complicated than all this? Because if it is, then some of us are reading way too much into these last three years. They forget that those who oppose us are long-term planners. We, unfortunately, are a short-term nation.

So, while I am appalled at the cynicism the White House shows in claiming three years without an attack as proof the president has terrorists on the run, I'm even more appalled at the naivete some of us show in buying it. Have the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001, gone unlearned even at the cost of 3,000 lives? Can we really afford to be as oblivious and smug as we were?

Any day on the calendar could be the next 9/11. Anyone who thinks that impossible or even unlikely because the president has "taken the fight to the terrorists" is risking a nasty shock.

What Mr. Bush did was to invade a nation with no known connection to the terrorist attacks. There are those who believe that in doing so he only inflamed Islamic radicals, confirming their most paranoid fantasies about our evil intent, thereby increasing rather than decreasing the likelihood of a terrorist attack.

Consider the military and intelligence experts interviewed in the October issue of The Atlantic. As one tells reporter James Fallows, "In my view, we are much, much worse off now than when we went into Iraq. That is not a partisan position. I voted for these guys."

It's unsettling to know that some of us have bought into the fantasy that in toppling a desert tyrant, we struck some sort of defining blow against terrorism. In the meantime, Afghanistan, indisputably the place from which we were attacked, recedes from consciousness. We knocked that nation off en route to a preordained confrontation with Iraq and never looked back. The man who directed the 9/11 atrocity is believed to still be there, but our attention is not.

How big a mistake that was may become tragically clear some awful morning yet to come.

As one joker put it, Osama bin Forgotten. But this much I guarantee you: He has not forgotten us.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald.

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