SALT LAKE CITY
As you read this column, it is a fairly good surmise that, somewhere, a terrorist group is planning the next attack on the United States or on American installations abroad. It is an attack not necessarily being planned in some cave in Afghanistan. It could be organized from a coffee bar in Beirut, or a student apartment in Germany - or even somebody's basement in Miami or Atlanta.
We do not know what form the attack will take. It could be an attempt to blow up one of America's landmark bridges. It could be a cyberattack, aimed at disrupting the communications network controlling the US air-traffic control system. It could be a chemical or biological package carried in on a tramp steamer from some Mediterranean country. Or even a suitcase-sized nuclear bomb hidden in one of the thousands of containers that pass through US ports every day.
How well are we prepared? The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a terrible wake-up call for Americans. Much has been done since, including the establishment of a Department of Homeland Security. But a large government bureaucracy takes time to galvanize and restructure. Huge gaps remain in the defense of the American homeland against terrorism.
There are two most notable ones. One is the lack of inspection for the thousands of containers that are unloaded in US ports every day from ships arriving from countries all over the world. The other is the failure to effectively fund and coordinate local firefighters, police officers, and medical personnel, who will be the front-line soldiers in any new catastrophic attack on US soil.
The deficiencies are not for lack of nudging. A government commission cochaired by former Sens. Warren Rudman and Gary Hart was warning before Sept. 11 of the pending terrorist threat, and making recommendations for countermeasures. Few paid much heed to either.
To some of us, the members of the commission resembled those brave but few voices in the European wilderness in the mid-1930s warning of the coming Nazi threat. They were disregarded until Hitler began his military blitzkrieg.