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Not Only Action but Accountability

by Nikolas K. Gvosdev on Sep 21, 2001

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Every commentator in America is drawing the parallel between the recent terrorist attacks and the Japanese air raid against the Pacific fleet nearly 60 years ago. This second Day of Infamy — September 11, 2001 — has already taken its place next to December 7, 1941. Not only have thousands of lives been lost in a surprise attack, but Americans’ sense of geographic security from overseas violence and turmoil has been shaken.

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the United States asked some hard questions about its lack of preparedness and held people accountable. Similarly, in the midst of our grief over the tremendous loss of life, Americans today should not allow politicians, officials and corporations to evade their obligation to investigate fully the lapses that allowed this tragedy to occur.

Like the handful of strategists who warned that Pearl Harbor was vulnerable, a chorus of Cassandras have persistently pointed to America’s growing vulnerabilities. The U.S. Commission on National Security/21st century, a task force chaired by retired Air Force Gen. Charles G. Boyd, warned two months ago that major changes were needed in intelligence methods, in the structure of national security agencies and in government preparation to thwart terrorist attacks. The final report stressed that homeland  security is not peripheral to U.S. national security but central to it. Prophetically, the commission concluded, in testimony before Congress, that it would take a major disaster to awaken the country to the reality that the security environment had changed irrevocably.

Before Pearl Harbor, strategists had concluded that the Japanese could not mount a major assault against Hawaii, and that any attack would be concentrated against American interests in the Far East. When Osama bin Laden has made his threats against the United States, why did analysts continue to believe that his al Qaeda organization could not strike the American homeland? Honest accounting will be required — but not from the traditional old-boy network that helped to conceal traitors within the intelligence community such as Ames and Hanssen.

Most Americans are familiar with the security lapses prior to December 7 — the lack of adequate naval air cover, too few patrol planes, the notorious radar error on the very morning of the attack. Today, airlines need to take a serious look at their procedures. Why, precisely, was the practice of having plain-clothes sky marshals on board flights discontinued? Why are baggage-handlers and security-screeners who work at the airport typically paid less than fast-food employees (and also usually hired without extensive security screenings), despite the critical roles they play in airport security?

After December 7, Americans were prepared to give up some of their conveniences for the sake of the war effort — whether it meant accepting rationing, recycling goods or following black-out procedures — to preserve the fundamentals of a free society.

Are Americans today ready to accept similar limitations?  Earlier arrival at the airports? More in-depth screening of passengers and luggage? Further flight delays? Or will security procedures lapse, as they did after the attacks on the Rome and Vienna airports, the bombing of Pan Am 103, and the conclusion of the Gulf War?

It is imperative that one great injustice of World War II — the wholesale roundup of Japanese-Americans for no reason other then their ethnicity — not be repeated. America’s commitment to civil liberties must be protected. However, steps must be taken — in cooperation with Arab-American and Muslim community leaders — to ensure that Islamic schools, charities and organizations are not being used, wittingly or unwittingly, to create networks that aid terrorist groups bent on destroying everything that America stands for — including the commitment to religious freedom that has made America a place of refuge for hundreds of thousands of persecuted Muslims from Bosnia, the Middle East and South Asia.

Gen. Boyd summed up the reality we face on September 12, 2001: “Those who carried out yesterday’s attacks believe they are at war with us. We have no choice now but to treat those threats accordingly and to address our serious national vulnerabilities.” If September 11 was the Second Pearl Harbor, we must persevere onward, to total victory against international terrorism.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior fellow for strategic studies at The Nixon Center in Washington and a writer for the History News Service.