TCS Daily

Seeing Manhattan's Scars Can Help Mend Nation's Defenses Against Terrorism

By James Pinkerton - September 17, 2001 12:00 AM

Sometimes you just have to see things for yourself. And the fate of nations can hinge on such first-hand experience. In the last century, forward-looking American leaders saw war destruction visited upon foreign soil and resolved to save this country from that fate. And they succeeded, because they mobilized not only courage, but also ingenuity, to the task of defending the United States. In this century, although it's too late now for the World Trade Center, all Americans can be witnesses to devastation and apply mourning wisdom to the challenge of preventing future such calamities. The answer will be found in blood, toil, tears, sweat -- and high-tech.

In 1918, a young assistant secretary of the Navy named Franklin D. Roosevelt toured the battlefields of France, seeing first-hand the carnage of the Western front. This was not the way to fight a war, the 36-year-old sub-cabinet official thought to himself -- that is, all that hurling of infantrymen's chests against machine gun bullets. Two decades later, as president, Roosevelt went toe-to-toe with his own generals, who had put together a plan to fight the looming war with 200 infantry divisions. No, FDR responded, we don't need to fight the last war over again; we need to win the next one, in a new way. The United States should mobilize 60 infantry divisions -- and then build 50,000 airplanes. Not legions of men slogging across No Man's Land, but fleets of warbirds dropping bombs from above. Victory through airpower. At the time, in the late '30s, the United States was building a mere 3,000 military aircraft annually, but once the nation got up, running and humming, factories were producing war materiel as reliably as the armed services produced heroes; by 1945, Rosie the Riveter had manufactured 304,000 airplanes. The commander-in-chief was vindicated.

In 1944, a senior senator from Michigan, Arthur Vandenberg, traveled to London and saw first-hand the carnage caused by Nazi V-rockets. Vandenberg had been an isolationist before Pearl Harbor; even during the war, he and many other isolationist politicians, although loyally supporting the war effort, said that America should come back home afterwards. That is, once the fighting was over and fascism vanquished, the United States should mind its own business on its side of the Atlantic, just as it had at the end of the First World War. But as he watched the first bloody fruits of the ballistic age falling on that ancient city by the Thames, Vandenberg thought to himself, "How can there be any immunity or isolation when men can devise weapons like that?" On Jan. 10, 1945, he stood in the well of the Senate, admitted that his past isolationism had been the wrong course, and called upon the United States to assume the responsibilities of world leadership. So the greatest period of bipartisan foreign policy-making in American history was in the making, as Vandenberg, a Republican, worked with President Roosevelt and then with President Harry Truman, both Democrats, to create a U.S.-led alliance for freedom. And for six decades since, the United States has supervised a world order of such alliances, most notably NATO, that have, for the most part, been able to keep the peace. For the most part.

This past week, a new American generation has had a sudden and tragic rendezvous with destiny. But we no longer need to travel overseas to see the consequences of ill-preparedness; we need merely turn on our televisions.

Still, I wanted to be there in Manhattan, as a witness, and here's what I saw. The city, strangely enough, is bright -- bright with candles. What's that line? Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness? New Yorkers have lit millions of them, at shrines that have sprung up everywhere: in front of hospitals, armories, firehouses, police stations, or just along sidewalks, stoops, on top of mailboxes.

As for the disaster zone, I never got close. Why should I? Who was I going to rescue, or at least retrieve? But from Canal Street, I looked south down Greenwich Street. In the past, I've taken in that view many times; I always thought that the hipsters ambling in and out of TriBeCa joints looked like ants at the feet of the giant towers. Now, no more: "WTC RIP," one nearby placard read. Smoke and steam puffed up, lit from below like an opalescent bulb by the temporary lamps set up by the work crews.

Like Roosevelt, like Vandenberg, like anyone with a pair of eyes, I have seen what terror and technology can do. But now let me share what a united America might be able to do.

Union Square, in lower Manhattan, has always been a hub of political activism, usually consisting of radicals on soapboxes denouncing something or another about America. But this weekend was different: it was patriotic Woodstock. Someone made a big flag out of paper flowers, the sort of thing you'd see at an American Legion convention. It stood there, unmolested, amidst notes and postcards and all the other public expressions of grief, condolence, and solidarity. Even the homeless people and the drum-dancers were wearing flag pins or flag bandanas. To be sure, there were plenty of "give peace a chance" types out and about, but none of them argued that this was America's fault. Nobody thought the people working in the World Trade Center Tuesday morning were the ones who didn't give peace a chance.

I fell into a conversation with an artist, one Miko Scardog. I'm not making that name up. He might have done so, but not me. He had created a work of art; it was an apple, as in Big Apple, painted on canvas, only the skin of the apple was an American flag. He called it "Unforgotten." I look at it, admiringly. "Sign your name," he told me. Indeed, all around the margins were scribbled signatures and well-wishes. So I signed it. "Now it's your art, too" said Miko Scardog, fellow American.

As we draw dedication from the loss and the hope that are on display in Manhattan, what policy conclusions can we draw? Never again, obviously. But how? Do what?

"It hardly matters if we're defending against missiles if we can't stop a terrorist attack like this one," said Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan defense think tank in Arlington, Va., to The Wall Street Journal last week. "On the other hand, it hardly matters if we can defend against terrorism if we can't stop a missile."

That's right. As he surveyed the slaughter in 1918, FDR didn't know what the war of the future would look like, but he knew that we had to do better. As Vandenberg watched the devastation of London from enemy missiles in 1944, he didn't know what was coming, but he knew that the United States would have to do different.

Those who said that the first big strike against the United States would be a rogue missile were wrong. But those who said that it would be a suitcase bomb were wrong, too. What's clear is that we don't know what's coming next. The enemy has the initiative right now, having wielded the element of surprise. So even as we cock the fist of vengeance, we need to be thinking about a seamless system of defense, from our borders to our airways to space up above. If we take strength from those who have been strong, and if we take wisdom from those who have been wise, we, too, can summon up the courage and the high-tech ingenuity to get ready for anything and everything.

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