September 28,2001 (Ira Pilgrim)

The World Trade Center Destruction

The World Trade Center's destruction has totally shattered several of our favorite illusions.

When I was in Europe during World War II, several people said something to the effect that Americans were lucky. There has never been a war fought in the US since the Civil War and Americans don't know what war is like. Now, in one small corner of the country, in an area of about 10 blocks square, Americans have had a small taste of it. Two immense buildings were destroyed and over 6,000 people killed. For each person killed, there are two or more people in misery.

What comes to my mind was what happened during W.W.II, when allied planes fire bombed the city of Dresden causing an estimated 135,000 deaths. This was described in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five. Then there was Hiroshima (75,000 deaths) and Nagasaki (75,000 deaths). More than 1,000,000 Armenians were killed by the Turks. These numbers are dwarfed by the more than 10,000,000 killed by the Nazis and a similar number of Russians killed by Stalin.

The question that I am now trying to answer is, aside from the actual destruction, loss of life and misery, what will the consequences of that terrorist act be?

For one thing, it showed how relatively easy it is to wreak a large amount of destruction on the greatest military power of all times, and it can be done without any sophisticated technology. In other words, a high tech missile defense system would do as little to protect our country as the impenetrable Maginot Line did to protect France from Germany.

The other idea that has been thrown into a cocked hat is the philosophy that has guided our germ warfare people for a long time, that in order for a germ warfare agent to be effective, the other side must be vulnerable and the side using the agent must be immune. When you are dealing with people who are willing to commit suicide in order to damage us, none of this makes any difference. In other words, what is logical is totally irrelevant when dealing with fanatics.

Last, but most important, a terrorist could destroy any coast city by bringing a small fishing boat containing an atomic bomb into the harbor and detonating it. There aren't enough Coast Guard ships or people to prevent it. Even if we multiplied the size of the Coast Guard by a hundred, they still couldn't prevent it. And the terrorists could use our own, or Russia's atomic bomb, or one from any of the many countries that now have them. You could do the same thing to Chicago with a nuclear bomb in a railroad shipping container.

In short, the World Trade Center destruction has totally shattered several of our favorite illusions:

1. That we are safe because two oceans separates us from our potential enemies.

2. That no other nation that might want to harm us is technically sophisticated enough to create those weapons. They don't have to create them, since we already have. All that the terrorist has to know is how to use it. That requires very little skill and it can be easily acquired. No matter how many precautions we take, we are still vulnerable.

Theodore Roosevelt said " Speak softly, and carry a big stick; you will go far." What he chose to ignore is that your enemy might take that big stick and hit you with it.

There is only one possible answer, and I have many doubts about whether it would work. That is to change the image of the US, particularly in the Middle East, to that of a country that helps people rather than hurts them. The Ariel Sharon philosophy, that all that you have to do is kill your enemies, can't work because for every enemy that you kill, you create at least ten more enemies for each killing.

The reason for my doubt as to whether it would work is because I think that it probably is already too late.

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