Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11 Five Years Later: Are We Any Safer?

I'm sure we all remember 9/11/2001, a day that will live in infamy. Much has changed, but are we any safer now? For a while we were united as a country, I remember watching our Congress, Republican and Democrat on the steps of the Captitol, singing America the Beautiful. But now, we are more divided as ever. A massive new Homeland Security bureaucracy has been added. Three different wars are being fought by the US, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the War on Terror. The PATRIOTIC ACT was passed, giving the government more power to fight terrorism. But how much safer are we domestically?

It is true that we haven't had any more attacks on US soil. Overseas there was the Madrid train bombing, and the London bombings last year, but nothing hear. And of course a major terror plot to bring down nine or ten planes using liquid explosives was stopped. Other plots may have been foiled that we don't know about, because they thankfully got stopped. So the government must have done some things right. Our intelligence, besides Iraq, despite all the criticism, seems to be working well.

Airplane security is the first thing that comes to mind. Perhaps the biggest change I'd put forth is the change in the mind of the passengers. If another hijacking was attempted, I do not believe the passengers would allow it to be successful. They would either stop them from hijacking the plane or would bring it down like those heroes on United 93. Now it's a lot harder to get sharp objects to use to hijack a plane on board. But, hijackings are no longer what we need to worry about. The terrorists know another hijacking wouldn't be tolerated. Instead, we have to worry about bombings on plane. Here, we have not come far enough. We still have no regular screening for explosives in carry-on and luggage throughout the US. At some airports explosives screening is being tried out. But, once you, your carry-on, and checked baggage get screened going past security or when you check in, you can travel to most any airport in the country without being seriously screened again. So, our airport security is as weak as the weakest airport's security is. Some small town air field that no one would ever expect to be attacked, lacking sufficient security, could be used as an enrty point into our closed aviation system. Once on a flight, they and their luggage could easily tranfer from a small commuter plane to a large plane flying to or from a city like New York. Now, liquids have been banned recently, but there are other ways explosives could probably make it on planes, We have not come far enough in protecting air travel from explosives.

Then there is every other form of transportation that has largely been neglected. Passenger trains are still quite vulnerable. I believe we are largely fighting our last battle, aviation security, and not adequately preparing for future attacks of a different kind. And then port security is also pathetic. It wouldn't be too hard for terrorists to sneak weapons into the US by hiding them in cargo on ships. We need to spend more money on port security, and more money on passenger trains. Mass transit is notoriously hard to secure, and its probably going to stay that way. With a large volume of people traveling relatively short trips, it's not possible to thoroughly search everyone. Trains can't be hijacked and run into buildings, but they can be bombed. So we don't need to spend a lot of effort trying to find all the sharp objects, but we do need to put forth the effort to find explosives.

What about immigration? I believe most of the 9/11 hijackers entered the US legally using visas. But, most of their visas were expired when they carried out their attack. If we had had in place a way to determine if someone is still suppose to be in the US, we could have perhaps stopped the September 11th attacks in the first place by catching them at the airport before they boarded. Now although we have the no-fly list, that is definitely not perfect. Lots of people with the same name as a terrorist are stopped and detained, even children. What we need is a database of everyone who is legally here in the US,US citizens, residents, and visitors. When someone's visa expires, if they say try to fly that easily would be spotted. This database would have biometric information (e.g. retina scans and fingerprints). This would prevent fake IDs from being used to enter the US, to fly, etc. This wouldn't guaranteed more terrorist attacks wouldn't occur, but it would make it a lot harder. This would also prevent screw ups on the no-fly list.

Now if should be pointed out that there's no way to prevent all terrorist attacks. We have a limited amount of resources, and so we can only protect some potential targets. (Everything is a potential target.) So, what we must do is protect the targets that if attacked would cause the most catastrophic disasters. Airplanes need to be protected because they can be crashed into buildings, but also because a full jumbo jet could be brought down with a small explosion, killing several hundred people. Trains and buses need to be protected because there are many people packed into a small space. Ports need to be protected to prevent weapons from being sneaked into the US. Targets like chemical factories and nuclear power plants obviously need to be protected. But there are tons of other places that can't be protected. Cars, schools, malls, homes, businesses, etc. If we could turn parts of the US into a Green Zone, virtually safe from attacks, the rest of the US could turn into Baghdad. Even if we stop the big high death-toll attacks (which is what we must try to do) from happening, many small attacks, bus bombings, car bombings, IEDs, etc, could occur that would cause just as much chaos if not more and bring our country's economy crashing down. At least right now people only get anxious when flying, and not when driving to work or going to a sports event. But that could easily change. We will never, we can never, be completely safe.

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