A One Shot Deal?

December 9, 2001

by John K. Bates

For at least the third time since September 11, the federal government has issued a “high alert” concerning possible terrorist acts. This time it was Tom Ridge, the head of the new Department of Homeland Security, who issued the warning. Americans, Mr. Ridge asserted, are supposed to be on alert for any suspicious behavior, and law enforcement agencies are to be in their highest alert mode. Our “war” on terrorism, we are told, is ongoing and a direct threat to the safety and interests of Americans abroad and at home.

Just as with every other “red alert” concerning terror acts in the past three months, Mr. Ridge’s warning appears to be a false alarm. Indeed, with the exception of the anthrax mailings - thought to be the work of a domestic whacko, though this has yet to have been conclusively determined - there have been no terror acts in America since Usama bin Laden’s madmen did their damage. Al Qaeda has made threats, but they carry less and less weight with each passing peaceful day. Mr. bin Laden’s apparent dream of igniting a fire under the Muslim world has gone for naught, at least for now. He has struck and run, and no one is following him.

So we must begin to wonder: Is there still truly a terror threat in America? For that matter, is a “war” really going on? The president and our leaders tell us there is, and of course our troops are in Afghanistan mopping up the remnants of the Taliban regime. There is still talk of extending military action, with Iraq the next likely target. Americans are and should continue to be prepared for an extended military conflict of some sort, somewhere.

But there are many questions still. Is this a war? Are we under continued threat here at home? Should Americans continue to live under the constant din of “terrorism alerts” put out by our leaders? And while many questions will remain unanswered for some time, a couple of facts are becoming more apparent which should give us pause.

First off, despite the endless talk of war, there has been no formal declaration of war by Congress. The congressional resolution authorizing the president to use force to combat terrorism is strong, but it stops short of an official declaration of war. This is no trivial matter. Much is being said about the Bush Administration’s desire to clamp down on terrorism and the threat of terrorists domestically; some of the measures proposed to do that are certainly of questionable constitutionality. Certain people of the left and right (including this columnist) are concerned that Mr. Bush would truncate the rights of Americans, and especially of foreigners of Middle Eastern descent, in order to make all members of society more secure. Even non-Arab American citizens will be affected, whether they are trying to enter a stadium, fly on a plane, or even talk on the phone. We will likely be subject to passive surveillance when we are in public (the face-recognition systems in use in Tampa, for example, are receiving a lot of attention these days) or when we are online (the “Carnivore” e-mail monitoring system is back and more powerful than ever). Everyone, everywhere will be a potential target for some sort of government scrutiny.

There are also growing concerns about the scope, breadth, and especially the longevity of Bush’s measures. For curtailment of rights in wartime is supposed to be a temporary arrangement. Yet there is little talk of implementing these measures for only as long as this “war” lasts. The Bush administration has addressed many of these concerns by citing precedent, usually from World War II, which in theory justifies a short-term abridgment of constitutional rights. But the critical legal distinction between WWII and today’s conflict is that in the Second World War, we had official declarations of war in place again Japan, Germany, and Italy; these declarations supported the temporary abridgment of fundamental freedoms for certain groups. We have no such declaration today, and it is this lack of a declaration of war that opens the door to long term or even permanent abuse of the power of government. Since the war is not declared, in theory it could never end; the freedom we give up “temporarily” will become all too permanent.

The other fact that should give us pause is that there have been no further terrorist attacks since September 11. More importantly, there have been no terrorist incidents (discounting the anthrax) since October 7, when we started our military campaign against al Qaeda. Does this fact not open the possibility that bin Laden “expended the arsenal” so to speak in masterminding the September attacks? Indeed, is it not likely that this was a one-time assault? Certainly al Qaeda has never shown ability for sustained, consistent combat. The previous World Trade Center attack in 1993, the embassy bombings in Africa, and the bombing of the USS Cole were all isolated incidents. Each required many months if not years of advance planning. None were followed up by any significant terrorist action. The fact that there has been no follow-up to our efforts in Afghanistan strongly suggests that bin Laden has neither the resources nor the planning in place to retaliate.

In fact, the 1993 World Trade Center attack is quite instructive here. From published court testimony, those who planned that attack were across the Hudson River in New Jersey when it happened, hoping to see the buildings fall down. In other words, the intent of that attack was no different than the attack this year; it is the result that changed. And in 1993, there was no sustained campaign of terror, no follow-up attack, and no “war,” undeclared or otherwise. It was a one-shot deal, as the September 11 attacks increasingly appear to be.

This does not mean America should not be vigilant. One can conclude with some effectiveness that the 1993 attack teaches another lesson: That America should have done more to prevent future terror attacks. That point cannot be denied, and some of the measures taken to prevent a recurrence of this year’s attack (especially the military campaign against al Qaeda) are completely justified. What is not justified is our government and our leaders using the context of a phantom “war” to seriously compromise our constitutional rights. Such abridgment may be acceptable during a declared, sustained war. But in an intermittent conflict, conducted largely outside of America’s borders, both the draconian measures to fight terrorism and the fear campaign of occasional “red alerts” to support them are uncalled for. Vigilance and prevention were possible before September, and they are possible now. But they do not call for eliminating the rights of Americans to go about their business unobserved by the supposedly “benign” government.

Until and unless al Qaeda or some other terrorist band make a sustained war effort against the United States, life should and must go on as it has. This includes our constitutional freedoms. It also includes not being scared every few weeks by phantom terror threats. Much has happened in the last few months, all of it centered on a single, savagely tragic act. But this is not war. And until it is, and until it is declared as such, the American people have the right to be left alone.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on CheyenneNetwork.com.

Send the author an E mail at Bates@ConservativeTruth.org.

For more of John's articles, visit his archives.

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