Even before terrorists struck four trains in Madrid — with that favorite weapon of cowards everywhere, the bomb — it had becoming chillingly apparent that we had to contemplate the unthinkable: What will we do if there's another Sept. 11?
A key first step is thinking through how we should respond to attacks beforehand. If and when the next attack occurs, there are five arguments we will undoubtedly hear. They are simple, clear cut — and usually wrong:
Throw money at the problem. If another terrorist attack occurs, we'll hear shrill cries that it's the Bush administration's fault. The $40.4 billion on homeland security that the president proposed to spend next year, we'll be told, wasn't nearly enough.
But few problems can be solved by money alone. The war on terror (search) is a strategic one —and at the strategic level, thought must precede action. Spending too much, too fast on programs that aren't well thought out would be wasteful and counterproductive.
We know, for example, that we need to do a better job spending the money we've already allocated to emergency responders. A study recently cited in Time magazine found that most grants to state and local governments have been distributed "with no regard for the threats, vulnerabilities and potential consequences faced by each region." We need a system that will spend our money efficiently and effectively.
Trade safety for civil liberties. Calls for new security measures that require temporary impositions on basic civil liberties (search) will surely be heard. This argument is almost devoid of logic. During the Cold War, the United States managed to endure a protracted struggle against a global superpower for decades without trashing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (search). It's hard to see how a small band of religious extremists merit suspension of the liberties that generations fought to preserve.
On the other hand, Americans should beware hysterical claims that every government action to fight terrorism is a slap at the Constitution. The USA Patriot Act (search) is a case in point. Its detractors have yet to identify a single abuse or prove that any of its provisions are unconstitutional. The debate over the balance between civil liberties and security warrants thoughtful debate, not knee-jerk histrionics.
America is wrong. If there's another attack, one explanation will be that we deserved it. Critics might offer any number of reasons, but we generally should dismiss these assertions out of hand. No nation is perfect, but our country strives to be a force for good in the world. Some may not like American politics or policy — or our pop music, for that matter — but nothing the United States has done justifies terrorist acts aimed against innocent people.
Still, no one should be surprised if the blame for attacks on Americans is pinned on Americans. The "enemy is us" argument was a refrain heard more than once after Sept. 11. That's to be expected. Reflection, criticism and reassessment are part of democracy. They are part of what makes for a strong and vibrant civil society — but we shouldn't let them become an excuse for inaction, retrenchment and retreat.
We're on the wrong course. In all wars we witness advances and setbacks, victories and casualties. Every incident is not a call for change. The United States succeeded during the Cold War (search) because it held firm, stuck to a long-term strategy that invested in security, protected civil liberties and promoted economic growth. The nation entered into a global war on terrorism trying to follow a similar path, and we should stick to it.
We can be sure more terrorist attacks on the United States are on their way. They may come soon or years in the future. After all, we know it took between five to seven years to perpetrate the Sept. 11 attacks. They may be travelers from abroad or people who have been living here for years, perhaps American citizens — but they will come.
No administration can guarantee it will stop every attack, everywhere. But if we take the offensive we can take the initiative away from the terrorists, lessen their chances of success, mitigate the damage they cause — and one day live in a world where they are left in the pages of history.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation .