Editor’s note: Current heightened concerns over another major terror attack on the American homeland make this 2003 column by Bob Just especially relevant. It reveals what a WMD attack on America would look like and, even more importantly, shows what it will actually take for America to recover and win the terror war.
No one can doubt the fierce commitment of radical Islamists who are willing to kill themselves in waging this war of terror on America. But as the war heats up, both in the Middle East and here at home where terror attacks are expected, the world will be watching to see if average American citizens can demonstrate a similar will to fight. Experts know the odds are against us.
Ironically, despite our “superpower” status, military authorities worldwide consider us an underdog in this battle of wills, something made clear by former military history professor Lt. Col. Anthony Kern (USAF, Ret.) in his famous “Open Letter to Americans,” written right after the Sept. 11 attack and later quoted by the Defense Department. In it, Kern warns Americans that the post 9-11 “flag waving and patriotism” could end fairly quickly in the face of continued terrorism.
“It is generally acknowledged that America lacks the stomach for a long fight,” says Kern. “We need only look as far back as Vietnam, when North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap (also a military history teacher) defeated the United States of America without ever winning a major tactical battle. American soldiers who marched to war cheered on by flag waving Americans in 1965 were reviled and spat upon less than three years later when they returned.”
Is Kern’s assessment cynical? Not at all; it is sober and realistic in acknowledging that the “soft underbelly” of the United States is public opinion, led by media opinion. So we must ask ourselves: When the terror really begins (and make no mistake, it’s coming), will we have the necessary determination to achieve victory, no matter what the sacrifice?
No one really knows the answer, because no one really knows just how ugly the battle will get. We can only guess. It could come as a multitude of terrorist attacks coordinated in Tet Offensive fashion in order to surprise and shock the American public, causing us to despair that victory is achievable, or it could come as long term, low-level terror to slowly demoralize Americans and undermine political unity. Consider the following modest scenario and the effect it would likely have on us all:
It started with news reports of a suicide bombing at sea. Cell phone calls were coming in from passengers on the “Lady Anne”, a cruise ship that had embarked from San Diego earlier that week headed for the Hawaiian Islands. According to one passenger who reached a local radio station, at least 30 people died suddenly in the huge explosion in the ship’s crowded ballroom. The suicide bomber knew what he was doing, placing himself where the bomb would cause the most damage. It was a grisly scene the caller described, body parts were everywhere, dazed passengers wandered the hallways in shock, and a huge number of wounded still went uncounted.
The Coast Guard immediately flew in an emergency surgical team, while the seriously wounded were rushed to the ship’s hospital. TV helicopters from Honolulu were circling the ship, long before the morning light. Americans who woke up listening to the cell-phone interview played over live footage of the “Lady Anne” – still a half-day from Hilo – could only think of the bombings in Israel, which created similar carnage. However, this was no normal terrorist attack. The “Lady Anne” bombing was only intended to get America’s attention. It succeeded. All the cable channels immediately connected to the satellite feed from Hawaiian TV. In fact, before long, the whole world was watching this “horror at sea.” There was more to come.
The terrorist noose closed quickly. Right as the story broke, someone placed a 911 emergency call that health officials first thought might be a prank. A prerecorded voice warned that the “Lady Anne” was also under biological attack.
In a clear Oxford English accent, steady and polite, the voice on the phone said that the “Lady Anne” had been exposed to a weapons-grade agent after disembarking from San Diego Harbor. Not much was said about the “agent,” just enough to raise serious alarm. It was a genetically engineered variety of smallpox, supposedly resistant to current inoculation technology. The tape message emphasized that the bio-attack occurred only after the ship was “safely” out in open sea, away from any possibility of shore contamination.
The caller’s polite personal assurances made his statement all the more chilling to those who understood the nature of the disease, which can literally melt the body from within while the patient remains conscious to the end.
Under “normal” circumstances without immunity, virologists knew that at least 30 percent of the passengers infected would die an ugly death within weeks. What they didn’t know until later was that the weapons-grade strain used was capable of killing with near 100 percent efficiency by causing massive hemorrhaging similar to the effects of the fearsome “black pox.” All Coast Guard personnel who had boarded the ship were immediately notified to stay there until further notice. The “Lady Anne’s” wounded would also have to remain on board. A triage area that had been set up in the dining room became a hospital.
The prerecorded voice on the phone called the “Lady Anne” a “death ship,” guaranteeing that after three days at sea most of the passengers (well over 1,200, including 43 children) would be infected, including himself. Maintaining an even tone, the caller gave his cabin number and said that, having finished his suicide mission with the ballroom bombing, proof of the biological agent would be left by his bed in an empty fountain pen used to smuggle the agent aboard. He said it was essential that the ship be stopped before docking in Hilo or American authorities “would be responsible for a disaster of global proportions.” No one needed convincing.
It was guessed that the terrorists had used modern aerosol particle technology, probably exposing the passengers during dinner on the first night. In previous decades, smallpox was not considered a very efficient weapon because disseminating it was so difficult. However, as reported by the New Yorker magazine and others in the late 1990s, the silicon-chip industry had developed credit-card size devices for special uses, which as it happens were also perfect for the efficient spread of viral particles. In 1998, a PBS Frontline documentary had pointed out that such a device could easily be placed inside a fake thermostat and attached to any wall in a public place. Experts knew this attack was totally doable. Now the public would know.
It was a bio-terror nightmare, made more frightening by its precise execution. Government strategies had to be devised on what exactly to do with the giant white ship, famous in the Hawaiian Islands for its sleek good looks and haute cuisine. For the moment it would remain quarantined at sea and under strict security.
Space-suited health officials would have to board the ship as soon as possible. In the hope that it might do some good, they would inoculate the passengers and crew with regular smallpox vaccine, isolate them, and then wait to see if anyone survived. There was also the question of how to handle large numbers of contaminated bodies, and the inevitable panic – both on board and around the country.
There was no chance to manage the media, which had received the same prerecorded message. On top of that, the “Lady Anne” was already a major national story due to the bombing. The public would have to know everything as it unfolded, or clearly, heads would roll back in Washington.
Over the ship’s audio system the captain told the passengers to immediately return to their quarters as a precaution. No explanation was given, but soon after, heavily suited CDC investigators were seen walking the hallways, accompanied by an armed guard. The fountain pen had tested positive. After everyone was inoculated, the waiting game began. America watched as several days passed. At first nothing, but then suddenly passengers started getting flu-like symptoms. Within days they were dying in large numbers. Panic took hold of the ship, making security very difficult. Once the disease erupts, victims become highly contagious. One passenger managed to get on deck, and could be seen jumping overboard. The Coast Guard kept him at bay until security agents could pick him up. TV news helicopters captured it all on videotape.
Back in the states, headlines read, “World Watches Death Ship,” while the networks and cable channels play video of the escaping passenger over and over.
The ensuing flood of articles and TV news reports were full of details, not only of the dead and dying on the “Lady Anne”, but also detailed histories of past smallpox outbreaks and their devastating effects, including the famous 1972 event in Yugoslavia where one “patient zero” shut down the whole country and caused the inoculation of 18 million people. The “Lady Anne” had hundreds of “patient zeroes” who had a highly contagious disease against which there was no protection. It was a floating biological bomb.
The public is terrified at the thought. All these men, women, and children on a dream vacation to see the world have now become a danger to the world. They themselves have been turned into a weapon, held back only by the terrorist warning. The scenario, scripted carefully, has played out exactly as the terrorists planned. Act II is about to begin.
Colorado’s tourist paradise, Aspen, suddenly reports a series of massive explosions. Within hours comes the news no one wants to hear: Radiation is present. The breezy summer day, typical for that time of the year, spreads the contaminants all over the primary tourist/business area of the city, and as the gentle winds blow, hundreds of chic residences are also contaminated.
This famously beautiful ski area is quickly declared closed, and probably for many seasons to come. Political authorities use the vague word “indefinitely,” while experts interviewed by various news networks explain that depending on the kind of nuclear waste utilized, Aspen could become hardly more than a ghost town. And yet, to the eye, the pristine mountain resort still looks beautiful – as does the “Lady Anne”. For Americans, normal is no longer normal – again, all part of this terrorist mind game.
It turned out the terrorists had used a few radioactive materials, including cobalt and americium, to confuse officials and add to the media profile of the event (creating more fear). The media report that cobalt-60 (a gamma emitter) has many common uses including cancer treatment and food irradiation, while americium (an alpha emitter) is often used in oil well surveying. The public learns all about “emitters.” New reports include details of radiation sickness, and the more likely long-term risk for people exposed – cancer.
Americans watch as this famous town dies. TV images of Aspen before and after are broadcast, a bustling town center becomes nothing but empty streets. Already reeling from the “Lady Anne” horror story, the tourist industry shudders from this second shock. Political leaders in both parties urge the public not to panic, but the fight to maintain normalcy isn’t working.
People stay home. The attacks have occurred just in time to stagger the recovering economy, and to plunge the presidential primary campaigns into profound shock.
This was only the end of Act II. There was more to come in the terrorists’ unfolding “drama,” scripted to play out in succeeding weeks. Each attack was designed for high
psychological impact but low levels of actual damage – from anthrax letters sent to businesses located in city centers to the chemical poisoning of one Florida town’s water supply. The lesson was clear: biological, radiological and chemical. The terrorists wanted to educate and frighten the public, not enrage it. They hoped America’s self-confident response to 9-11 would “pop like a bubble” once the war was taken to this next level.
In truth, despite continual warnings from American officials, the public was not prepared for an attack of this sophistication and magnitude. That was the point – not only to terrify with choice of “weapons,” but to terrify with the “creativity” of their use. As in the case of the D.C. area sniper killings, fear of the unknown and the unpredictable is what the terrorists sought to achieve.
The key to their plan’s impact was in knowing that every household in the country would get the same nightmare imagery on TV and the same basic message: Anytime they wanted, the terrorists could do this on a much larger scale.
Another message got through to the public: No matter how well the American military waged war abroad, their families at home would never be safe again. In fact, the “Lady Anne” bio-attack alone made it quite clear to everyone that America might face death on a scale never seen before in history.
This was not just an effort to sway public opinion. It was an all-out battle for the American mind, using the media as the primary gateway. The goal was to convince a simple majority of voters that the “war on terror” could not be won, and that in any event, Israel was not worth the suffering and sacrifice. Even the most brave and conscience-led politicians would have trouble standing up to that kind of shift in public opinion, making “appeasement” candidates inevitable.
Immediately after the attacks began, the president had put the nation on full alert, calling for unity and promising action if any evidence is found linking the attacks to a particular country. None has been found so far. Increasingly, pundits on TV say that military action in the Middle East is not going to stop terrorists from wreaking havoc within America. Although the president’s approval ratings are still high – due to successful action abroad – there is continual criticism and second-guessing on issues of homeland security, resulting in growing public frustration over America’s situation. “Helpless giant” becomes a popular media phrase. Congress holds hearings.
Over the succeeding months, the bloody Palestinian intifada is dramatically reinvigorated. CNN broadcasts images of young Palestinian boys standing “defiantly” before Israeli tanks. As the presidential election approaches, divisions begin to grow in America’s political ranks. As the opposition party gears up for the primaries, there is general agreement that, yes, terror must be resisted, but not at the expense of peace in the Middle East. There must be an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Quickly, Israel’s “intransigence” becomes the issue. Large sums of anti-Israel money pour into the coffers of certain outspoken congressional candidates. The election debate heats up.
Time magazine puts an ominous silhouetted picture of a bearded man on the cover with the headline, “The Unknown Face of Terror.” The report suggests there’s no end to the flow of zealot killers, and thus no clear victory is likely. Increasingly, says Time, people are looking for alternatives to war. The polls start to agree, and slowly but surely “appeasement” candidates start to gain credibility in the media.
America, once united and focused on crushing the terrorist enemy, is now more at war with itself, as in the Vietnam era. Increasingly, those crying for aggressive action on terrorist nations are called warmongers, while those seeking to “understand” the terrorists are peacemakers.
America’s enemies watch her fault lines grow. They watch congressional leaders become increasingly frozen in doubt, while support for the president diminishes. As the attack unfolds successfully, gaining the desired results, the terrorists become even more determined to maintain pressure on the United States, which is now actually becoming a “helpless giant.”
Can the center hold?
We’ve seen this kind of scenario before. The accumulative effect of the attack described above would be not unlike the famous Tet Offensive during the Vietnam war. That pivotal “victory” for the North Vietnamese was not over our military, which quickly beat back the aggressors, inflicting huge casualties. It was a victory over the American media, which became unnerved and then subsequently unnerved America’s political leadership. That combined with a substantial and growing “peace movement” ultimately led to America’s defeat in Vietnam. So great was the shock over the apparent strength of the enemy and its determination to win, that in psychological terms, America simply caved in at home, despairing of any near term victory. Sadly, all this happened while our men were dying bravely in the field, never losing a major tactical battle.
Whatever the nature of the coming terrorist attacks that most experts consider inevitable, the resulting political/media drama described above is also inevitable. Our enemies know this. It not only factors into their plan, it is their plan. Thus, everything they do will focus on the goal of dividing to conquer. They cannot win any other way. They can’t beat our military, so they must beat our people. Thus the American character is being tested as the world waits and watches to see the results. Those jealous of our power are eager to watch us fall. And we might fall if our people don’t stand firm.
Consider that even now – with the 9-11 attacks still vivid in most people’s minds – it’s obvious that Americans are less unified. And it may get a lot worse. The terrorists have studied us. They know that if the war starts to “go wrong” for America, the two parties will fight over it. Even now various politicians are positioning themselves to take advantage of any American setbacks. These kinds of divisions will only grow deeper as the presidential election approaches. Our enemies understand our media and our political system. They know they can create disunity because currently that’s how our “adversarial” system functions. Politicians, who continually seek advantage in opposition, play to a media that needs opposition for its debate formats?a marriage of convenience that can be devastating to public morale, which never gets to see lasting patriotic unity.
This gives terrorists a tremendous psychological advantage, and they know it. What soldier on the battlefield is told by some of his officers to fight and by others not to fight? And yet, over time, if the parties become divided, that’s what could happen to our civilians, who are the center of gravity in the coming battle. They will get mixed messages, and they may falter when grit determination is essential.
And the battle will soon be upon us. The 9-11 attack was only the beginning. Nobody is being an alarmist here. Even the Journal of the American Medical Association warned years ago that bio/chemical terrorism is not a question of “if,” but only of “when,” urging readiness for 100,000 dead and the same number in need of hospital care. Imagine that on the TV news – 24 hours a day. Imagine the opposition party’s reaction.
So the only thing really in our control is how we’ll react as a people. Ironically, that is also our most powerful weapon, the one truly capable of being decisive. A steely, unified America is the one thing our enemies fear. It is not enough to have brave leaders and a brave military. The people themselves must be brave. This war on terror will not be won without “true grit” on the part of the American public, and a passionate desire to win. Otherwise, the inevitable “party wars” and media hysteria will freeze the public’s will to act against our enemies.
Although the Vietnam War showed our enemies how to defeat us, we can now show them that we learn from history. Effective homeland security must focus both on convincing our enemies that they can never win, and convincing the American people not to give up no matter what we suffer.
Our military personnel, who put their lives continually on the line, have a right to expect no less a commitment from us. It is also the only path to victory.