It lapses into the hopelessly obvious to note that this nation is totally committed to the automobile. Almost all movement of goods and services depends on trucks and cars in one way or another. Over 250 million of these machines operate each day over a multi-million-mile network of roads and streets, including 40,000 miles of Interstate Highway.
While environmentalists and urban planners fret about this excess in terms of pollution, the waste of petroleum, the steady increase in gridlock, and the defilement of the landscape, etc. the nation rumbles onward, totally ignoring any alternatives -- if in fact there are any in a nation whose infrastructure is so spread out and fragmented from sea to shining sea that railroads, monorails, bicycles, airplanes, watercraft, etc. simply cannot replace the motor vehicle.
Many economists agree that the incredible mobility of this population, both in terns of public and private business, is the unique engine that separates the American economy from those in Europe and the Far East. The endless options for the movement of people and products across this nation at any time, day or night, winter or summer, has been the trump card in sustaining the world's strongest and most vital economy.
Yet a new spectre is threatening the cherished motor vehicle and its unique capability to move anywhere at any time. We witness it each day in Iraq and in Israel. There the automobile has become a bomb of devastating proportions. Masses of explosives packed into cars and trucks have been more effective than all of Saddam Hussein's aircraft and Scud missiles in destabilizing the entire Gulf Region, with no end in sight. The furtive mobility of the motor vehicle has transformed it from a massive economic advantage into a powerful terror weapon of "mass destruction". If we are seeking such devices, they can be found on the streets of Baghdad and Tel Aviv, not in some desert bunker.
America has suffered two such assaults -- the first failed attempt to topple the World Trade Center and the deranged McVeigh's gruesome attack on the Oklahoma City federal building. In both cases rental vans were employed. While the savages who hit the nation with commercial aircraft on 9/11 took a larger toll, the complexity of their plan makes it difficult to duplicate, especially now that the nation's airline security system has been radically improved.
Conversely, literally millions of trucks, large and small, ply our roads, each in theory at least, capable of packing devastating loads of explosives. It is perfectly possible, even probable, that at this moment small cadres of terrorists are packing non-descript motor vehicles with dynamite, ammonium nitrate, nitro-glycerine or, God forbid, small nuclear weapons. These four-wheeled weapons, based on our much-valued freedom of movement, are theoretically easily able to reach their targets -- of which there are so many, public and private -- that computation is impossible, especially when trying to divine the twisted logic of a terrorist.
There is no question that security has been improved on our airline system to a level where the possibility of hijackings like 9/11 becomes exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. But the motor vehicle, as proven by the daily carnage in the Middle East, remains a supremely potent weapon.
What to do about this threat? A mass of checkpoints around national monuments, federal buildings, hospitals, stadiums, shopping malls, corporate headquarters, and other potential targets? An unlikely possibility, considering the manpower necessary and the habit of Americans to move freely without Big Brother's intrusion.
Security checks for all vehicle license holders and truck renters? Not only a bureaucratic nightmare but an instant cause celebre for the ACLU and other civil rights groups who already complain that Arab-Americans are being unjustly targeted by police and security agencies. And one cannot forget that the aforementioned McVeigh was a white, Anglo-Saxon with a decorated background of military service who might slip through any such screening.
There is, in reality, no way to protect this nation from a fanatic driving a rolling bomb down a public street. Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge and his new team will do their best to ferret out the most obvious threats, but no one understands fully the latent rage that bubbles up within the population, not only among lunatic-fringe Muslims, but White supremacists, hate-filled Greenies, powerful ethnic gangs, drug lords, etc. Any of these groups, plus uncounted others, are capable of enormous destruction in the name of some demented cause that probably cannot be interdicted by law enforcement until it is too late.
Perhaps the only possible counter to this ever-increasing threat of domestic car-bombers is individual vigilance, a constant lookout by the citizenry for suspicious behavior. It's not much of a deterrence against a looming, shadowy threat that offers no logic or coherence, but it may be our only defense.