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Ogmius Newsletter

Ogmius Exchange: Part I

Thoughts on Catastrophic Terrorism in America

By Lewis M. Branscomb

The seven questions I am most often asked by fellow citizens and the media about the threat of catastrophic terrorism are:

  • What is the single most important message you have for us?
  • Is the government going to protect us, as it does in wartime?
  • Is there a solution that does make us safe?
  • Why are we so vulnerable?
  • What can we do to make the nation safer?
  • Who is responsible for making us safer?
  • Will we have to give up our civil liberties and become a police state to root out the terrorists?

Here are my personal answers:

We will not be safe so long as there are terrorists bent on massive destruction in the U.S., but technology, correctly developed and deployed, can make the nation safer. Technology cannot make us safe.

The government is only beginning to shift from a Cold War approach to the use of science and technology for security to a new arrangement more appropriate to the new threats from terrorists. The new threat is not war; it has no beginning and no end. Even the enemy is largely unknown. The military-industrial complex -- so useful in the Cold War -- will be of marginal value in the new situation. The government will try, but it will not protect us from the threat of catastrophic terrorism. It can only make the terrorists’ job harder.

Yes, there is a solution that preserves our democratic, free, and open way of life. But it requires drastic changes in our foreign policies, away from isolation, away from seeking an American hegemony, away from instigating conflict with nations our government calls evil. It requires a new policy that addresses our moral obligation to create a world that is less poor, less distressed, less environmentally damaged, a world that is less despotic and less driven by religious fanaticism. It will be very expensive, will take a very long time, and will depend on a much more sophisticated system of education and public information.

Meanwhile the terrorist threat will be with us a very long time. The terrorists did not create the vulnerabilities they exploit. Our competitive drive toward maximum economic efficiency creates new vulnerabilities every day. The elements of critical infrastructure on which we depend for our daily lives become more and more concentrated, more interdependent, and less redundant, as firms drive for greater efficiency. We will still be vulnerable long after El Qaeda is gone. We can reduce that vulnerability by restructuring our businesses and public facilities – and work to make the world a less ravaged and violent place.

A lot can be done to make the nation safer from the threat of catastrophic terrorism. The government can help the Russians blend down their huge store of highly enriched Uranium to render it useless for making a fission weapon. New biological science can learn how to detect a biological attack earlier and can create new vaccines and antibiotics to cope with such an attack. The vulnerabilities that invite an attack on our system of electric power distribution can be greatly reduced. Cyber systems can be made much less vulnerable. Toxic chemicals in commercial storage and transportation can be much better protected. New buildings can be built to standards designed to withstand both fire and blast, and can have ventilators and filtration systems that stop and diagnose toxic gases. With new science arrays of sensors, thousands of times more sensitive that those we use today, can detect concealed explosives, toxic, and fissionable materials being moved through our transportation systems.

But who is going to do all this? The key problem is that 85 percent of the critical infrastructure of the nation is owned by the private sector. Aside from public facilities in cities and national monuments like the Statue of Liberty, this infrastructure constitutes the terrorists’ primary targets. Industry is waiting for government to decide who does what, who pays for it, and how a competitive economy can be maintained while reducing those elements that while adding efficiency create serious vulnerabilities.

If it takes decades to bring about a less violent world, and if the technical fixes only make the terrorist’s job harder but do not prevent catastrophic attacks, do we have to become a police state to root out the terrorists, who even now may be in our midst planning new destructions? There is a grave danger that politicians will use the threat of terrorist attack to justify other policies that in fact do not make us safer but rather do threaten our civil liberties. An excellent example is the abortive project proposed by the Attorney General called TIPS, in which large numbers of untrained citizens would be encouraged by government to report “suspicious” acts by their fellow citizens. Those my age will remember the McCarthy period when this happened, and the even worse experience in Stalinist USSR and in Nazi Germany, when children turned in their parents and parents turned in their neighbors.

The government needs to present a far more steady, competent and organized face to the American public. The current tendency to announce color-coded levels of danger, when there is little private citizens can do in response, the repeated announcements that terrorists might be using scuba divers in Seattle or truck bombs in tunnels in the East, only serve to do the terrorists’ job for them. Government-induced anxiety and the claim that we are in a “war” with terrorism only serve to increase the political dangers of erosion of our constitutional rights. We are not at war with terrorism. Wars have defined enemies, defined battlefields and defined outcomes. This very serious threat to our security has none of these. It is much more insidious and dangerous to our future as a democracy than is a conventional war.

As we face this future, a determined electorate must get its priorities straight. We must take a new look at the world around us. The frustration and suffering of a majority of the world’s people can no longer be ignored. We must undertake a long period of restructuring our economy and the facilities that support it to make them more resilient. Finally, and most important, we must be determined not to allow our own political leaders to erode the very freedoms we struggle to protect.

These views are my own, and should not be attributed to the National Academies of Science and of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine which sponsored the study of the Role of Science and Technology and Countering Terrorism, of which I was co-chair during the period from December 2001 to June 2002.

Lewis M. Branscomb
Harvard University