Volume 15 Number 4
A Year After the Day That Changed America Forever
01 August 2002

Joseph V Montville is Director of the Preventive Diplomacy Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC.

A year after 11 September, Americans have a persistent sense of foreboding that other outrageous terrorist attacks are coming. The directors of the FBI, the CIA, the Attorney General and the Secretary of Defense seem to compete in the issuance of dire warnings.

The administration no doubt wants to compensate for the dramatic lack of warning before the attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon. But we also feel that the enmity of Islamic extremists for the United States and the West is unabated, and that all our defenses, both existing and in the making, will not be proof against their determination to hurt us again. Finally, there is a mostly unarticulated fear that our leaders do not really understand the nature of the threat and may not be philosophically up to the task of eliminating it.


The summer in America has been taken up with the business of establishing a new Cabinet Department of Homeland Security. Hailed by President Bush as the most important reorganization of the federal government since the Department of Defense and the National Security Council were established in 1947, the new department aims to unite 170,000 employees in 22 separate federal agencies under one authority.

The Coast Guard, Secret Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service will be pulled out of the Departments of Transportation, Treasury and Justice respectively and joined with Customs, animal and plant inspection, nuclear incident response and visa processing, among other functions. The new Secretary for Homeland Security will assess intelligence reports for threats to the peace and coordinate the government's response to these.

This reorganization makes sense on the face of it, considering the unprecedented audacity and traumatic impact of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Defense Department last September. We have to get our act together after the scandalous revelations of bureaucratic incompetence within and between the FBI and CIA, and especially their unwillingness to share information with each other.

Ironically, one of the biggest obstacles to this rationalization has been the challenge to the legislative branch to reorganize itself as well. There are 88 chairmen heading committees and subcommittees with legislative authority over the executive agencies being consolidated. Pride and power among men (and some women) in Congress are as formidable barriers to wise governance as they are in the White House and government departments.

These human foibles probably contribute to the American public's continuing unease about its safety. We know that political manoeuvring and the compromise of integrity are constants in government. But when President Bush's Republican Party strategists pitch the war on terrorism as the key campaign issue for the November Congressional elections, they raise suspicions that the national effort at collective self-defence is being used for partisan advantage.

There is another area of concern: the government's perceived indifference to openness in policy-making and the defence of civil liberties in the current tense environment. An example has been the confinement of American terrorism suspects to military imprisonment without legal counsel or trial, conceivably for the duration of the war on terror which could last years or even decades in its current rhetorical conception.

Every nation has the right to self-defence against 'ticking-bomb' terrorism or assault by hostile states with weapons of mass destruction without having to get clearance from lawyers. But the human instinct toward abuse of power is historically endemic in government, which is why America's founding fathers insisted on powerful checks and balances in our Constitution. One of the most precious things we are defending against our enemies is our democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law. It takes very strong and wise leaders to be able to protect our hard-won freedoms while assuring national security.


One indication of wisdom would be to engage creatively with the context in the Muslim world that has generated attackers and their silent supporters in the first place. There has been bad governance and leadership in many Muslim countries that only their citizens can change. But ordinary Muslims have been appalled at the apparent lack of caring in the outside world as their civilian brethren have been attacked and repressed in Chechnya, Bosnia and the West Bank and Gaza, for example.

The United States could lead Europe and Russia in advancing the dialogue of civilizations by more vigorously communicating basic respect for the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. We could help Muslim moderates fight extremists by acknowledging the universal human values in the Koran. These include freedom of conscience, the dignity of the individual and God's embrace of all nations - Jewish and Christian People of the Book and even those without a Book.

Abdulaziz Sachedina's The Islamic roots of democratic pluralism (Oxford/CSIS 2001) elaborates these themes and should be required reading in the White House, foreign ministries, editorial offices, and universities and in every Muslim home. Right beside it we should find Rabbi Dr Marc Gopin's Holy war, holy peace: how religion can bring peace to the Middle East (OUP 2002), a practical plan for reconciliation among Jews, Christians and Muslims that would do more for international security and the defeat of terrorism than a ten million man army. That would be wise leadership.

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