The Washington Post
September 12, 2001, Wednesday, Final Edition
American Holy War
William S. Cohen
As the smoke clears from the skies of New York, Washington and western Pennsylvania, much remains unknown this morning regarding yesterday's terrorist attacks. But what is certain is that the American people will not succumb to terrorists — and will not rest until justice is done to those responsible.
As a free society, and one that is constantly renewed and strengthened by integrating individuals from all lands and cultures, America is particularly vulnerable to those who exploit our openness. The objective of such terrorists is to cause America to cower — to withdraw from the world and to abandon our ideals. But America cannot wrap itself in a continental cocoon, safely isolated from a troubled world. We have global economic, political and security interests that require our active involvement abroad. Even if we did retreat, America would remain such a potent symbol that those lashing out over perceived grievances would still aim their wrath at the United States. Too many generations have paid the ultimate price defending our freedom for us to retreat from the world or retrench from our values. In a very real sense, America itself must embark on its own holy war — not one driven by hatred or fueled by blood but grounded in our commitment to freedom, tolerance and the rule of law and buttressed by our willingness to use all means available to defend these values. Just as those who pursue terror have been relentless in their efforts, so must we be in ours.
No government can guarantee the full safety of its citizens either abroad or at home. But no government can permit its citizens to be attacked with impunity if it hopes to retain the loyalty and confidence of those it is charged to protect.
There have been many silent victories in which attacks, both abroad and at home, have been foiled by U.S. authorities during their preparation. Key terrorists and portions of terrorist networks have been rolled up, unraveling planned operations against U.S. interests. We have used military force to strike at terrorist camps and capabilities, and we are constantly refining our ability do so more effectively. Those who support or harbor terrorists should know that the United States is not limited to passive defense but is prepared to take active measures to disrupt terrorist activities, as demonstrated three years ago by our strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan. There is no statute of limitations in pursuing justice, and U.S. authorities actively hunt those responsible for past terrorist acts and have successfully brought many to justice. America's memory is long, and her reach even longer.
We have sought and usually received cooperation and support from other governments in these efforts, with various degrees of enthusiasm. Such international cooperation has become even more essential and less discretionary — meaning that America's fundamental posture toward friendly but not always helpful capitals should increasingly depend on their cooperation in fighting terrorism. This is because, as horrific as yesterday's attacks were, we must be prepared for even worse. Americans must now think the unthinkable — that the next terrorist attack could well involve a contagious biological agent carried to our soil or airspace in a briefcase or bottle. We face opponents who are working diligently to become, in W. H. Auden's words, someone who "clutching a little case, walks briskly to infect a city whose terrible future may have just arrived."
Viewed as merely the stuff of fiction a decade ago, such a scenario is now widely acknowledged as a genuine threat. In recent years, tremendous efforts have been made by federal, state and local authorities to prevent and prepare for such a threat, and thereby deter it. But much more remains to be done. There is a natural tendency among political figures to compete to claim this issue as their own, but the threat is sufficiently at hand that a disciplined approach is needed, with the president and his administration providing the leadership and Congress providing oversight and funding.
To be effective, this effort will require greater international cooperation, intelligence collection abroad, and information gathering by law enforcement agencies at home. Information is power, and greater access to information will require the American people and their elected officials to find the proper balance between privacy and protection. It has been difficult to get sustained, thoughtful, broad-based dialogue on this delicate topic, but the sooner such dialogue occurs the more likely it is we will strike the right balance. This will raise difficult questions regarding government intrusion, but the main threat to our civil liberties stems from the chaos and carnage that could result from a biological attack for which we were insufficiently prepared and the demands for action that would follow. Those who engage in terror feed on any display of fear or weakness, and those attacked must either fight or fold. Our people, not just our government, stood up to the fascist and then the communist threat to freedom. Americans did not triumph in the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War only to forfeit our victory to anonymous extremists in this war. As with the last, this struggle will not be won with a single military response. Victory will require the American people to display courage, faith, unity and determination to carry on for the indefinite future.
The writer is a former Republican senator from Maine and a former secretary of defense.