Sharon Fields and her daughter, Kristen, walk their dog at sunrise each morning on a tiny triangle of land jutting into the Hudson River here, a waterfront park affording breathtaking views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and lower Manhattan. This morning, they held hands and wept. “It’s like it was never there,” Sharon said. “The sun would rise right between them. And now they’re gone.”
It may take the rest of the United States sometime to understand how the view from our shores has changed in the past 36 hours, but for millions in the New York metropolitan area, the impact is immediate and visceral and impossible to deny. Even those lucky enough to avoid a personal connection to the many thousands now dead in that rubble will find themselves staring into the void in coming days as the gargantuan morning commuter rush resumes. New York’s mighty skyline hangs like Oz over this region, and from distances of 30 miles and more, there are times when even a native son turns a corner and takes a breath at the majesty of it all.
Growing up in New Jersey, the gradual transformation of New York’s skyline that took place between 1971 and 1973 enthralled me. Like most boys, I thrilled to anything larger than life - from dinosaurs to the Titanic to Raquel Welch. From the Watchung Mountains - about 30 miles from the city - my friends and I watched the north tower’s progress into the sky. I remember the day when we all stood - illegally - on a huge communications tower at Bell Labs in Murray Hill and declared that the tower had overtaken the Empire State Building. Its twin - the south tower - would follow about six months later. New York was too big for just one such exclamation point.
A NEW REALITY
Today, as Sharon Fields said, they’re gone - along with thousands of souls who worked in or around them, who tried to rescue those stricken by the first wave of the tragedy, or who had the misfortune to be visiting these landmarks on their final day. Already, there has been a lot of discussion of what may have perished with them.
Certainly the scattered, reactive U.S. approach to global terrorism would be listed among the missing. The United States is spending some $30 billion a year on intelligence activities, and now proposes to pour billions more into an anti-missile shield which would have been as powerless to stop yesterday’s mayhem as the rest of our armed forces. Bill Arkin, a military analyst and frequent contributor to MSNBC.com, pointed out yesterday that American intelligence agencies “try to do everything and thus do nothing.” It’s an exaggeration, of course, but his point is salient. If we are at war with terrorists, as George W. Bush and Colin Powell say we are, then let’s go to war.
But what does that mean? American society is wholly unprepared for the realities. Terrorism is now on America’s domestic radar, but the implications for society have not even started. Each step down the road toward a full-siege mentality is fraught with consequences, and taking these steps requires real thought and public input.
This goes far beyond the constraints of more stringent security at airports and train stations. Imagine laws that would forbid the dissemination of certain political ideas. Such laws exist in some of the world’s freest democracies: in Germany, against propagating Nazi ideology; in France and Spain, regarding the spread of inflammatory Corsican and Basque nationalist sentiments. Even in Britain, until only a few years ago, television and radio outlets were banned from broadcasting the voice of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, the leader of the Irish Republican Army’s political wing, under the Suppression of Terrorism Acts. Even today, members of Her Majesty’s Government will deny the existence of MI5 and MI6, the British national and international security agencies. This despite their gleaming headquarters on the banks of the Thames.
Is this where we’re going? It bears discussion.
Another premise that should be laid to rest is the idea that technology will protect the United States. In fact, from the start to the finish of Tuesday’s tragic events, technology failed the United States at every juncture. Intelligence agencies, which have de-emphasized “human intelligence” over the past few decades in favor of satellite and other eavesdropping, failed to distinguish between the daily rhetoric of anti-American crazies and the specific threat of a major strike against America that a London-based Arabic-language paper carried three weeks ago. Our airport security systems - x-ray machines and metal detectors - apparently missed ceramic knives carried by highly-trained terrorists. Our air traffic control system apparently failed to react when transponders that each aircraft carries to help ground control plot their altitude mysteriously failed to activate on four flights, and then those four flights diverged radically from their flight paths.
And now, in the wake of these attacks, the American intelligence and military services are frantically trying to find a single man — bin Laden — whose whereabouts could only be ascertained occasionally on a slow day - again, only if he reveals himself to our technology.
“To penetrate any group takes 10 to 15 years of aggressive spying,” a former military intelligence officer told me. “We believed in technological intelligence because we felt after the 1970s that we were a society that just couldn’t properly use assassination and other forms of aggressive espionage. We deprived ourselves of the only weapon there is to deal with terrorism, which is a crime of intent. If you don’t pre-empt the attack, you’ve really missed your chance.”
All of these issues should be weighed carefully. These are not merely action items in a war against terrorism; these are fundamental questions about the nature of American democracy. There is a fine line in such an exercise between “winning” such a war and “losing” by destroying that worth fighting for in the first place: freedom.
NO INNOCENCE TO LOSE
Through all of the pain of this awful week, one thing every American should be on guard for is nonsensical talk of “America’s lost innocence.” Already, that phrase is being bandied about on television and in newspaper editorial pages, and it is an insult to the men and women who won the cold war and every war before it. The attacks on New York and Washington and the destruction of the airliner outside Pittsburgh are horrible acts. They are not, however, the actions of cowardly lunatics. Our innocence in questions of espionage is long lost. Remember, Osama bin Laden began his career in mayhem as an asset of the CIA fighting the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. By all means, let’s go get him if he is determined to be behind this. But let’s not pretend he rose from the fires of hell, even if we do hope to send him there eventually.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this disaster is that our foreign policy decisions have implications. Like New York itself, America is too large to do anything that doesn’t make enormous - sometimes unintentional — waves abroad. Some Americans - and their representatives in Washington - falsely assumed that, having vanquished the Soviet Union, they could detach themselves from the levers of stability America established after World War II. From the United Nations to NATO to Interpol, these organizations may now be as relevant to America’s security as they ever were in the Cold War. Defeating international terrorism will take more than a tactical nuke dropped in a Central Asian desert. It will take a coalition of great nations — Russians, Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Israelis, Japanese and Europeans. Luckily, almost all of the aforementioned peoples would like Osama bin Laden’s head on a platter. America’s next challenge is to make sure we deliver it up without the heads of a million innocents.
Michael Moran is senior producer, special reports at MSNBC.