Yossef Bodansky, the former director of the U.S. Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and a man I respect immensely for his intelligence insights, says the United States faces an “inevitable” al-Qaida attack with weapons of mass destruction.

What would be the U.S. response to such an attack?

Now is the time to think about the unthinkable.

Contingency plans need to be made. And those plans, at least some of them, need to be known to the whole world to serve as a deterrent against such an attack.

For more than 40 years, the idea of mutually assured destruction was enough to prevent the Soviet Union from launching a nuclear attack against the United States. It wasn’t an ideal deterrent, but it worked.

It’s not so easy to deter an attack from an enemy that doesn’t have an address.

This is, in essence, on a smaller scale, the same problem Israel has faced with conventional terrorist attacks over the last 40 years.

How would the United States respond if terrorists were able to detonate a nuclear device in the United States? How should the United States respond if the terrorist enemy we face were to attack us with weapons of mass destruction?

This is not a question that can wait for an answer. We need to have the public debate now. And a policy of quick response needs to be established. The world needs to know what it will mean if the United States is attacked with unconventional weaponry.

Right now, there is no deterrent for the terrorists. There is no downside to such an attack. If we don’t know where to find those responsible, like Osama bin Laden, there would be no cost to them.

But, as Bodansky makes clear, bin Laden will not be acting alone if such an attack is launched.

Bin Laden sought the “blessing” of key Islamist clerics for such an attack. Those clerics and the countries that harbor them need to be identified – now.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush made clear the world would be divided into two camps throughout the war we are now waging. It would be divided, he said, into those who support the terrorists and those who support us.

Since that dramatic speech, however, the lines dividing the world have been permitted to become blurred. We have made it too easy for much of the world to sit on the sidelines and claim neutrality. We have made it too easy for our “friends” to do nothing to aid us. We have made it too easy for our adversaries to oppose us with no cost.

It’s time to redraw those lines.

It’s time for a clear-cut plan of retribution to protect the people of the United States from such a horrific attack.

We don’t like to think about the necessity of inflicting innocent deaths. Ever since the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, many in the United States have been wringing their hands over whether it was the right thing to do. We’ve been second-guessing our parents and grandparents for that life-and-death decision.

Now our generation has a more wrenching decision to make.

What will we do if we’re attacked again – this time with weapons of mass destruction?

We cannot afford to put off this discussion until it happens. It will be too late. At that point, it will be pure vengeance. But making the plans now and making them known to the world – as uncomfortable and unpopular as those plans might be – may be the only way to deter the deaths of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions.

Here are my ideas:

  • It’s long past time for the United States to begin empowering the American people, particularly those most vulnerable in major cities, to protect themselves through common-sense, civil-defense measures. That means tax credits and other incentives for schools, businesses and private residences to provide fallout shelters, stockpile medical supplies and store food and water. Relocation of major population centers is not a viable option and will likely result in more death and destruction and panic. We must minimize the loss of life from such an attack, not maximize it.

  • The Islamist world and its allies need to know there will be an unprecedented nuclear response to any attack on the United States with weapons of mass destruction. We don’t need to be specific about which major cities and installations will be vaporized. But it needs to be clear that the response will be overwhelming, resulting in far greater death and destruction than what is inflicted upon the United States. We need to let the terrorists know that addresses of response have been determined. Those counseling the terrorists that such an attack on the United States is justified should be among the first to experience the horror.

To those who say such a response is immoral, we need only point to the balance of terror with which we lived throughout the Cold War. That balance of terror helped us survive. It helped us prevent the need to destroy the lives of millions, including many innocents.

But not preparing for such a possibility is the real immorality. By suggesting tacitly the United States will simply absorb such an attack or respond to it as we have responded to previous attacks is the real immorality. By having this national debate now and putting the world on notice, we can give the terrorists something to think about.

Do they really want to see their cities vaporized? Do they really want to see their religious centers destroyed? Do they really want to see adherents to their ideology and their faith killed in massive numbers as a direct result of their actions?

It’s time for our intelligence networks to get busy on identifying the targets of retaliation. They should be numerous. They should be chosen wisely to ensure that as many as possible of the Islamist ideologues and the false prophets of death are killed. They should be chosen to ensure that, if the unthinkable happens, at least it will mean an end to this war. The targets should be chosen to inflict so much death and destruction that this evil ideology we face can never recover.

That is the only moral course for us to follow.

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