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Radiating Fearlessness

Americans dipped into a deep reserve of resilience and fortitude after the Sept. 11 plane-bombings. They're now more alert to danger, but more resolved not to let fear run their lives. That was the first battle-front victory against the terrorists' ultimate goal.

May it ever be so, despite evidence of an Al Qaeda plot to explode a bomb with low-grade radioactive material in the US. The plot was temporarily foiled in May with the capture of an Al Qaeda operative, an American Latino who converted to Al Qaeda's militant interpretation of Islam.

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Though not used yet, a "dirty bomb" could create more panic than the likely number of casualties would justify, and seems aimed at creating massive economic damage by contaminating a large portion of a city. However, it's difficult to make and transport.

Low-level radioactive material is now a common commercial product, often not well protected from theft. But its association with highly radioactive nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants could create undifferentiated and unnecessary fright over the possibility of a dirty bomb being detonated.

That's why some perspective is needed, along with a strong appreciation for how the nation has reacted to Sept. 11 with such aplomb.

Still, this news of Al Qaeda's desired means for launching a new attack, and the fact that the network can recruit Americans, means this war has taken on a whole new level of "asymmetry," as Pentagon planners call it. US defenses don't match its enemy's weapons or tactics, as in traditional warfare. The enemy and its means of combat are even closer within American society, and thus less likely to be detected.

That calls for everyone to express qualities of vigilance, perception, reason, and caution in daily life. The intelligence-gathering forces in government need the backup of fearless resolve from the public. And a "dirty bomber" can meet his match.