WE'LL NEVER BE THE SAME
BY HELEN THOMAS
WASHINGTON — "It Can't Happen Here." That was the title of a book by Sinclair Lewis in the late 1930s, but the context of the time was fascism.
Now we face the reality that horrifying terrorism can occur in the United States. We learned about domestic terrorism with the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 — and now we have seen a larger-scale warlike coordinated attack on New York and Washington, pillars of U.S. financial and military power.
We once thought of our country, protected by two oceans, as invincible, invulnerable. Those days are now gone forever. The terrorist aircraft bombings of the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, across the Potomac River from Washington, have changed our world.
I heard one man say in the aftermath of the catastrophe, "We will never be the same." The same expression came from many others throughout the new "day of infamy" in American history, which is prophetically dated 9-11.
The fatalities — the people on the planes and in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and some of their heroic rescuers — were the obvious victims of this tragedy, as well as their families and friends. A spiritual value is now threatened because the terrorists have succeeded in their goal of creating a climate of fear in a society that has only known freedom.
We have had a wake-up call. Security was obviously lax, because the suicidal highjackers were able to bring knives and perhaps other weapons aboard the commercial airliners that they took over. How was it possible with the close screenings and magnetometers at the nation's airports?
Several years ago, at the Milwaukee airport, I had a small cheese knife confiscated when I tried to get on a plane.
More poignant is the fact that we were caught flat-footed because of our shaky ability to nurture and harvest human spies to help us detect and thwart this kind of terrorism. There are some things that our high-tech spy satellites don't do well — detecting low-tech terrorists is one of them.
I hope we have now learned that we need informants on the ground, tipsters, infiltrators who can alert us to those who would do us harm. It's important that the often-friendly people in countries that we have labeled as "terrorist" understand that we can make a distinction between them and their leaders.
That's where we ought to have persons skilled in counterintelligence.
The surprise terrorist strikes have rightfully been compared to Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese warplanes attacked U.S. armed forces in Hawaii, leading to our involvement in World War II. We had lots of intelligence about Japan's plans, but it was not coordinated or acted upon, unfortunately. For that we paid a heavy price.
The lessons of Pearl Harbor and World War II taught that we should always be militarily prepared. That was relatively easy for the rest of the war and during the ensuing Cold War when we could locate our rivals on maps of the world.
But the perpetrators of the latest attacks on the United States are more elusive. They are armed groups tolerated, maybe even encouraged, by some states hostile to America. Their organizations aren't listed in the phone book. That's why we face a particular challenge in gathering intelligence about them.
Undoubtedly, the administration will name the culprits and take revenge, although that action raises the risk that innocent people again could lose their lives. Retaliation was on the lips of many angry Americans whose lives were shattered on that sunny late-summer day.
In times like this, the leaders of both political parties rise above partisanship. Patriotism binds us together — all you have to do is look at the huge lines of donors outside of blood banks.
The day after the attacks, the White House handed out little American flags to all the visitors who toured the Executive Mansion. And in the distance down Pennsylvania Avenue, we could hear the strains of "The Star Spangled Banner."
We will come out of this stronger, wiser — and more vigilant.
(Helen Thomas can be reached at 202-298-6920 or at the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.)
© 2001 Hearst Newspapers
Distributed by King Features Syndicate