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Staying ahead of the rising tide of terror

It's time to move past "do we or don't we shellac Saddam" to the stuff burning holes in our hearts.

Let's name what we're really after. Isn't it security, to know that when we say goodbye to our families in the morning we'll live to say hello again over the dinner table at night?

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So let's talk about security, and look at more than today's headlines when we do. Then we'd have a few clues about how to handle the current "terror of the decade," who turns out to be the same guy we supported in the 1980s when he was gassing the Iranians, our terror of another decade.

Let's start with the bad news, which unfortunately is about as bad as it gets. Anybody and his brother can get super-killer weapons, and it's going to get worse. In my youth, the bar of technology for producing those weapons was so high that only a handful of determined nations could acquire them. But technology and unfettered arms merchants drop the bar year by year, so low that today, any determined individual or group can acquire automatic weapons, surface-to-air missiles, and bombs.

The time lag from state monopoly to mass availability? Maybe two human generations.

For a peek at what our children and grandchildren will confront in their backyards tomorrow, take a look at what's in the arsenals and labs of nations today. What we see there ought to stop us in our tracks: weapons that give one person the power to destroy millions: nuclear bombs in a suitcase; chemical and biological devastation in a can.

We can't be more than a few decades from a time when someone will be capable of splicing, say, the HIV virus into the common cold virus. The unthinkable is rapidly nearing: the day when weapons of large-scale destruction will be accessible to thousands.

Will our grandchildren survive? We could greatly assist their chances if we updated our notions of security. Current understandings rest security on military strength. By possessing weapons capable of devastating any attacker, we hope to deter aggression. History makes clear that deterrence is an unreliable defense. We've been victims of attack by groups that should have been deterred and weren't. But for such occasions we trust in superior strength to limit damage and defeat the undeterred.

Deterrence and superior force worked pretty well, until science caught up with us a few decades ago. In my grandparents' youth, travel was hard, and crude technology limited the killing power of weapons. These natural limits created a security barrier so high that serious threats to America were few. But those days are gone. People now travel easily and in large numbers. Worse, weapons travel the globe unaccompanied – in missiles, airplanes, shipping containers, the mail, and even in rays of energy. Perhaps worst, weapons are cheap and widely accessible. Today, a few dozen determined individuals scattered around the globe can wound us so badly that we have a national crisis. It's like waking up to see that a wall 10 feet thick and 12 feet tall got lopped off at 5 feet.

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So why can't we just raise the wall and stay ahead of the rising tide? Because the genies of mass destruction are already out of the bottle. They're getting cheaper and more accessible by the year and worse ones are coming. As early developers of these technologies, we benefited militarily from the edge they gave us. But as technologies of death move out of monopoly ownership into mass production, their power will turn against us. The capacity of enemies to do us terrible harm will multiply faster than our ability to deter or destroy them.

Think about the drug war. After years of effort, billions of dollars, and mounds of rhetoric, drugs still arrive daily in all 50 states. Please, give me some scenario with even a remote chance of security against weapons so small you could hide a dozen in one drug shipment. And as weapons get more deadly, our margin for error decreases: overlooking a dozen rifles is one thing; overlooking a dozen surface-to-air missiles is another. Overlooking a dozen canisters of biological weapons, well....

Increasingly, none will be secure until all are secure. Old doctrines will give us no peace in the night. In fact they'll make things worse – any influential nation that looks comfortably oblivious to the needs of others and menacing or arrogant will arouse widespread resentment.

So what's the alternative? Up until now we've practiced "demand side security" that focused only on our needs as consumers of security. "What will make us safe?" was the question; "build a wall of armaments" was the answer. The well-being of others, and particularly the well-being of our detractors, was of little concern.

In the future we'll have to practice "supply side security" and ask questions we ignored when we looked only at the world as consumers of security. What are the sources of enmity against us, and how could those sources be reduced? How can we increase the supply of goodwill which is ultimately the most stable and plentiful source of security? What could be done to cause others to see us as important allies in meeting their own critical needs?

We'll have to take seriously the goal of hearing and understanding needs; building economies, schools, hospitals; earning a reputation for deep commitment to the well-being of all and accountability to the world community.

There's an old saying: If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail. It's time for America to demonstrate that we have more tools than big hammers. Our task is to leave no doubt that we care as much about the survival and well-being of others as our own. And we don't even need to be generous to do this.

The truth is, our own survival is at stake.

• Ronald S. Kraybill is professor of conflict studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.