My dad always says that it is better to be lucky than smart, although, of course, it’s best to be both. I was reminded of this truism when listening to a discussion of arrests of suspected terrorists since 9-11. I’m not talking about the ones playing paintball in the woods, but the ones with actual explosives. Those arrests meant we dodged a deadly bullet.
When these guys are caught—whether it’s the so-called millennium bomber at the U.S.-Canada border at the end of 1999, the three people found with a cache of weapons and components for a sodium cyanide bomb in Noonday, Texas, in 2002, or the al Qaeda operatives found with 18 pounds of explosives in Pakistan in 2004—investigators often attribute the find to a lucky break. The Noonday case, for example, was revealed when a letter intended for co-conspirators went to the wrong address.
That’s not to take anything away from those working daily to uncover terrorist plots. Their efforts helped Canada catch 17 terrorists in May.
But the bottom line is that they can never uncover them all.
And here’s the chilling reality: We won’t always get a lucky break.
That leads to the inevitable conclusion that we will get hit again. Maybe this conclusion is so obvious that you’re wondering why it’s worth a column. The reason is this: I fear that it’s a conclusion we’ve all reached but that we do not truly accept. It’s like knowing that smoking causes cancer but smoking anyway; knowing this truth doesn’t change your behavior, because you haven’t really accepted its implications.
How should knowing that we will be hit again change our behavior as a nation? It certainly doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to prevent attacks, nor does it mean that we should be riddled with fear about when the next shoe bomber will drop.
What it does mean is that we should think now about how we will and should react to that attack. Some suggestions for what not to do might be: Don’t totally rearrange all of the government departments, assuming that if only they were structured better it wouldn’t have happened.v Don’t attack the people in charge at the time, assuming that if only they hadn’t slept during the night it wouldn’t have happened. Don’t take away yet more civil liberties, assuming that if only we hadn’t let anyone do anything, it wouldn’t have happened.
So what should we do? That’s a lot harder to answer. Maybe just keep doing what we are doing. As with any security system or any medical procedure, there will be an error rate. Accepting that fact is not the same as accepting poor performance or being cavalier about the loss of life. But if you abandon every solution that sometimes fails, you’ll end up with no solution at all.