Reminders of the threat that never really goes away. A prudent heads-up has gone out to law enforcement agencies about an unconfirmed but credible terrorism threat in connection to the 9/11 anniversary Sunday.
Resisting the panic-inducing breaking news graphics on Cable TV is a good idea. This is not about panic- this is about everybody being vigilant. We killed bin Laden this year. The 10th anniversary is upon us and we found documents in his hideout that indicated he may have been planning a terrorist act in the U.S. timed for the anniversary. There are sources in Pakistan that have reportedly come through over the past 48 hours indicating something may be up. Every intelligence service in the country is on it and that’s a good thing.
Reliving this terrorism stuff is not pleasant. Reliving the events of ten years ago stokes a lot of emotions in the country and particularly for folks in New York and Washington who have deeply personal memories of the chaos and evil that befell the nation on that “severe clear” autumn day in September.
I’m trying to revisit these memories in small doses. I’m not anxious to relive 9/11. But we do owe it to those who perished that day; to their families; to the courageous 1st responders- to never forget.
For a couple of years I lived in a Manhattan apartment that offered a view of the two powerful blue beams of light that are projected into the sky from Ground Zero on the anniversaries of 9/11. Two years ago, the moon, shrouded in clouds, appeared to teeter directly above the beams. I found a picture of it tonight on the web. It was one o’clock in the morning and I remember thinking how it appeared those mystical lights were melding with the moon and shooting up into the heavens themselves.
The growing discontent over full body scanners and intrusive pat-downs is evidence that the government has gone a step too far. Frankly, I thought they had already gone overboard and have seriously wondered why people accepted the indignities they’ve been suffering for most of the past decade.
I’ve always thought the answer to airline safety was more Air Marshalls and psychological profiling. Not racial profiling. Psychological profiling. This is where you monitor people unobtrusively for nervous or erratic behavior followed by simple questioning. This taking-your-shoes-off routine has always been lame; reactive instead of proactive. All because one guy (Richard Reid) tried to set his sneakers ablaze.
What we’re seeing is the identical response, only this time to the would-be Christmas underwear bomber who accidently set his genitals ablaze. I remember the jokes that were flying around shortly after that incident. If massive, nationwide shoe-removal followed Richard Reid….yikes…what would happen now that someone tried to hide explosives in their underwear?
Welcome to the knee-jerk response. Full body scanners are the virtual equivalent of the strip searches we all thought, jokingly, might follow the Christmas Underwear Bomber incident. Well, it’s actually happened. They really are looking at our private parts now. And if you refuse the scanner, now they’re touching them too with front-of-the-hand inspections that go all over the place.
With the massive Thanksgiving travel season upon us this has turned into a real nightmare for the TSA. A Facebook-inspired nationwide protest is gearing up for November 24th in which passengers are being asked to refuse full-body scans. Pilot unions are up in arms and their members are already being urged to refuse the scanners.
Ostensibly, one of the reasons for the repulsion to these incredibly expensive and intrusive machines is the small amounts of radiation that are emitted during each use. But that’s not really why people are upset. I think it’s a combination of things. I think people are finally resenting being treated like potential terrorists when all they want to do is fly to a business meeting or to grandma’s house. And now the “touchy” area of literally, physically or virtually inspecting our bodies. It’s just become too much.
People used to be compliant. They put up with ridiculous strategies like outlawing the transport of certain quantities of shampoo. They accepted standing barefoot or in their stocking feet while TSA agents x-rayed their killer lap-tops. They did it for the greater good. But it would seem the public has finally reached the point of being willing to put up with a little risk in exchange for basic human dignity.
The exact quote from Benjamin Franklin, written sometime before February 17th, 1775 as part of his notes for a proposition to the Pennsylvania General Assembly was this:
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
People are finally beginning to tire of living in fear.
So Osama Bin Laden has sent us another message. As his face appeared on the TV screen, I got a real sense of irritation and annoyance. I am not scared of him. I am bored to tears with him. He is so lame. Like a pesky fly you can’t get rid of. Anyway, he’s sent so many messages over the years, but I’m not sure anyone has sent one back.
Yo, Bin Laden:
I don’t know your exact location these days, but wherever it is, I’m hoping it’s damp and uncomfortable. Got your latest message. I see you are taking responsibility for the “underwear” bomber guy who tried to take out a Northwest Airlines plane over Detroit.
I don’t know if you noticed, oh brilliant one, but the attack was a masterpiece of incompetent failure. Your genius buddies at your Yemen franchise designed a faulty fuse that caused your brave would-be bomber to pretty much burn his own genitals beyond recognition. As if that were not pathetic enough, you apparently feel the need to elbow your way into the limelight by trying to take credit for this abysmal failure.
Everybody knows you had nothing to do with it. We know you are in a cave or some crappy little hovel in western Pakistan, running to the next super-duper-top-secret-location every time one of our predators drops a bomb within ten miles of you. With your every waking hour dedicated to self-preservation, I don’t think you could coordinate a two-car parade, much less an intricate terrorist plot.
I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve dropped your recent concerns about Iraq and Afghanistan and are back to the Palestinian thing. You used to be angered about U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia. Your message discipline is all over the place. You are not rallying the great masses, you are boring and confusing them into a stupor.
Anyway, worst of luck to you and your independent franchises around the world. May your nights be long and really scary and the wind always in your face.
I read three articles related to this terrorism business yesterday that, pieced together, offer the following perspective: This is a typically asymmetric conflict; the bad guys are nimble and adaptive; we are slow, plodding and tend to fight yesterday’s wars. Both sides have had their share of victories and failures but it is has become quite obvious that any sense this “war” was in a lull was pure illusion.
Probably the most ominous of these articles is an excellent piece by William Saletan at Slate that points out that the recent incident in which an Al Qaeda double-agent detonated a bomb, killing seven CIA officers during a meeting at a military base near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, was insidiously clever. It was an attack on the folks who had been running the highly successful predator missions. These drone attacks have been so effective that it’s reported Al Qaeda operatives have been fleeing from the countryside and into Pakistani cities on the theory the U.S. would never send predators over highly populated urban centers.
The attack took advantage of the weakness of the predator program- its necessary dependence on fresh, actionable intelligence that is used to ascertain the location of high-ranking enemy targets. It’s reported the assailant was claiming to have sensitive and immediate information on the whereabouts of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s #2 leader. He got in to the military base without even being searched because he was a trusted spy. As Saletan points out, the predator technology may have revolutionized modern warfare and given us a powerful tool in the fight against terrorism, but it’s still run by humans and that’s where they hit us- at the people who piece together the intelligence that provides the strategic map for where these drones attack.
In the New York Post, Ralph Peters writes that terrorists are outthinking us, and he too points to the clever and effective ruthlessness of the attack on the C.I.A. agents. He argues it’s part of three major tactics that are being used that have been tragically successful; the employment of suicide bombers, the deployment of improvised explosive devices (IED’s) and perhaps most importantly, the campaign to destroy the trust between U.S. forces and “locals,”- the lynch pin to our ultimate exit strategies in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Peters concludes the bad guys are totally ruthless- we are not.
Finally, there is this piece from the WCBS-TV website on the ridiculous incident at Newark’s Liberty airport Sunday night in which absolute mayhem ensued when a single individual walked into the terminal through an exit and couldn’t be located. That created a breech of the secured area of the airport, forced a massive re-screening of all passengers and ended up creating huge delays and frustrated crowds that were reported to have numbered as high as 10,000. A similar incident with the same results occurred a few years ago at Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport when a passenger who left a camera on a plane, returned through an exit to try and retrieve it. It boggles the mind that there are no simple physical barriers at these exit points. Just one more item in the growing to-do list for improving the systems we thought we had put in place to protect us.
The picture that emerges is not pretty. Terrorists are adapting to the changing landscape of warfare, continue to revisit their previous failed attempts while we forget the lessons learned (as in failed shoe-bomber, Richard Reid), and meantime, bungling government agencies like TSA do things like accidentally publishing details of their security measures on the web and being inattentive in protecting security perimeters at airports.
And let’s hope somebody in government is working on items that aren’t the current rage for discussion on Cable TV- the equivalent of fighting yesterday’s war. While we labor to fix airport security, put the right people on terror watch lists, and redouble our efforts to recruit spies we can trust, let’s keep our fingers crossed that somebody is also working on things like securing our ports and docks and sensitive targets like nuclear power plants.
It would be unspeakably tragic if, while we are running around putting our fingers into the latest leak in the dike, the bad guys decide to hit us with something totally unexpected that would dwarf anything we’ve ever seen before.
Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of the stories of the decade from news, sports and entertainment to space, technology and even infrastructure and archaeology. There’s some really thought-provoking stuff and wonderful photos embedded in these ten links. Happy New Decade, everyone!
The Boston Globe provides as good a list as you’ll see of the top news stories of the decade. The terror attacks of 9/11 top the list and includes a dramatic photo in which you see the exact moment White House Chief of Staff, Andy Card tells a wide-eyed and stern-faced President Bush, that the nation is under attack. The Obama election, wars, the rise of Google and the mapping of the human genome are among the stories in the top ten.
Great list from the University of Southern California. USC names the 2000 Gore versus Bush election as the top political story of the decade.
C-Net and PC World both offer the top technology stories and both have the rise of Google as one of, if not the top story of the decade. Other common stories from the tech world are Facebook and social networking, the I-Pod, the I-phone and the retirement of Bill Gates.
Discovery has a wonderful list of the top ten space stories of the decade. Leading the list- Alien planets- actually, exoplanets, orbiting distant stars. They’re not only spotted directly for the first time, but photographed.
Sports Illustrated picks baseball’s steroid scandal as the top sports story. The fall of Tiger Woods, the fall of Michael Vick and the rise, fall and rise of Kobe Bryant get top-10 nods.
Entertainment & Celebrities
MSNBC has a swell list of the top entertainment stories including the death of Michael Jackson, the rise of reality shows, Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, the death of Anna Nicole, and Britney Spears’ fall from grace.
Reuters offers its take on the 10 best TV series of the decade: Numbers 1-3 are: The Sopranos, West Wing, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Infrastructure and Archaeology
In case you thought the people of the world had a tough decade, check out how nasty the first ten years of the new millennium have been on the nation’s infrastructure. Infrastructurist.com’s top five stories of the decade include Katrina and Terror in Transportation.
And last but not least- the top 10 archaeology news stories of the decade: The looting of the Iraq National Museum, Flores Man (an 18,000 year old human ancestor known as the Hobbit), and the discovery of Otzi, the Iceman, an extremely well-preserved 5,000 year old neolithic herder who got lost in the alps.
Here’s to hoping that if you ever get lost on a tall mountain range, you end up looking as good as this guy in 7010.
I suppose there’s a reason why clichés exist- there’s truth to them. Here are two that seem appropriate as we start this first week after Christmas: 1) Even when they fail, terrorists win and 2) We have to be successful every time, they just have to be successful once.
Yeah, I’ll admit it- I’m a little spooked. It struck a nerve; the near-disaster that was averted only when a faulty detonator prevented a bomb from taking out 278 passengers aboard a plane headed for Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day. I know 40 thousand people die every year in car accidents in the United States so, technically, the automobile is a bigger killer than terrorism.
But stuff like this becomes personal when your kid arrives from Atlanta for Christmas week and all is right with the world. Five days later he flies back from New York’s La Guardia airport and- just like that- we now have to get to the terminal an hour earlier with a freshly renewed specter of terrorism in the back of our minds.
And I’m frustrated at the workings of a seemingly incompetent bureaucracy. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s own father had warned U.S. officials of his son’s increasing radicalization and associations. That’s how he got on a terror list data base to begin with. Why wasn’t that also good enough to get him on a no-fly list? Why, exactly, was he issued a U.S. entry visa?
I heard Homeland security chief, Janet Napolitano tell ABC News’ Jake Tapper on Sunday: “The system has worked really very, very smoothly.” She lauded the passengers and crew for their actions. What? Passengers putting out a fire and subduing a man who just tried to set off a bomb, are an integral part of “the system?” I’m really glad the passengers did what they did, but I do believe their mission on that flight was to sleep, eat some pretzels and get home, not wrestle some maniac to the floor who wanted to kill them.
Napolitano also said on ABC’s This Week that there are no indications the screening in Amsterdam was not properly done. She has since pulled back from that statement. Clearly, somebody messed up. This fellow got on board an aircraft with pentaerythritol (PETN), the very same plastic explosive material al-Qaeda operative Richard C. Reid used in 2001 when he tried to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner by igniting a homemade bomb in his shoe.
As for terrorists failing and still winning- Richard Reid, of course, was an abysmally failed terrorist, but his legacy lives on with every shoe we’ve had to remove at airport security screening for the past eight years. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab apparently had these explosives sewn into his underwear. I can only imagine what his legacy will be on the traveling public. Is it too much to ask for airport screening that works and is effective- that’s minimally smart and profiles people and behavior instead of profiling their luggage? It seems to work for Israel’s El Al airlines just fine.
I hate that I’m even slightly spooked as I take my son to the airport. I’m frustrated that these deranged losers can affect our lives in so many ways, large and small. I’m not proud that in feeling these things, I’ve let these guys win even a miniscule victory by stoking my own, mostly irrational, fears for my family and friends.
But at least now I know how it works. Next time I put my kid on an airplane, or board one myself- turns out he and I and our fellow passengers are a primary line of defense in a system that works so “very, very smoothly.”
(Note: On NBC’s Today Show this morning, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, completely reversed her comments on ABC’ s This Week and specifically stated “Our system did not work in this instance. Nobody is happy or satisfied with that. An extensive review is underway.” The President has also decided to address the nation later today about the incident.)
It’s just not a lot of fun being President of the United States right now. I cannot imagine a bigger laundry list of problems, related to both the economy and foreign policy. But it is now official: Barack Obama owns all of it.
In his somber address at West Point last night, the President charted an intricately calibrated strategy for pressing the war in Afghanistan. Part of it is designed to build his credibility with the Pentagon establishment by giving the Generals pretty much all they want- for right now- basically a year and a half to put up or shut up. And there’s the timeline that sets July, 2011 as the date for the start of withdrawal of U.S. military forces- obviously intended to appease those wary of an open-ended and protracted conflict.
He seemed to succeed in making just about everyone unhappy. From the left, there is serious disappointment and there will be significant opposition to support of the war effort. People who know this stuff, like the Washington Post’s Dan Balz , are saying the President may get half of his own party to go along with funding of his version of a “surge.” Even Illinois Democratic Senator, Dick Durbin, Obama’s closest ally in the Senate is balking. He notes the President took a long time to make this decision and now he will too; he says he needs to think about it.
The White House will get nowhere in Congress without some Republican support and we all know how easy that is to find. As voiced by the President’s 2008 Republican opponent, John McCain, the new plan is ok- except for the part about leaving. He’s strictly opposed to setting the timetable for withdrawal. But hawkish Republicans are the least of the President’s political worries. Polls are finding independent voters increasingly dovish, turning against the effort in Afghanistan and much of it on financial grounds- how the heck can we afford it?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is being dispatched overseas to win support of wavering NATO allies. They’re supposed to be providing 10,000 additional troops. Britain says they’ll be putting in 500. Germany says it will wait for an international conference later this year before deciding. Our allies don’t seem real thrilled about helping out either.
And then there’s the not so small matter of the people of Afghanistan. Polling suggests support for the Taliban is less than 10%, but the corrupt central government has no credibility at all. MSNBC military analyst, Col. Jack Jacobs makes the point that the portion of the Obama strategy that depends on turning the war over to Afghans has a chance- if – the U.S. deals less with the Hamid Karzai government and more with local leaders.
Part of the Obama plan is supposed to involve a civilian surge too; the hearts and minds piece of the puzzle. The U.S. is going to have to make significant improvements in Afghanistan’s infrastructure so there’s a year and half to invest in nation-building and have something to show for it.
So let’s sum it all up: The President will find prosecuting the war in Afghanistan will be difficult, getting out of Iraq remains a challenge, the real problem remains Pakistan, an unstable government that is home to both a nuclear arsenal and Osama Bin Laden and meantime, record unemployment continues to wreak havoc at home, health care reform seems nowhere near to being settled, our own infrastructure could use some form of nation-building and the polar ice caps continue to melt.
Why was it again he wanted this job?