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Editor’s Notebook

By James T. McKenna | July 1, 2004

Prepare for the Worst

Most of us, I’d bet, would love to forget September 11th. Sure, we’ve vowed after those terror attacks that we’d forever honor the heroes who died trying to foil those attacks or save their victims and the victims themselves.

But forever’s a long time, and honoring memories is a demanding tasks. Forever requires perseverance in achieving goals. Honoring demands a selflessness in putting those goals before personal comfort and interests. Humans are good at neither. Abraham Lincoln, consecrating the cemetery for American Civil War dead at Gettysburg, Pa., urged us, the living, “to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.” He had in mind the goal of restoring the union of the United States, but his words are just as applicable to our great task—making our world safe from terrorism.
The student of human nature that he was, Lincoln knew that devotion to great tasks fades as time passes between us and the terrible events that made those tasks clear. There is ample evidence of that in today’s war on terrorism. Money intended to rebuild devastated areas is squandered on luxury residences. Agencies and top politicians fight over turf. Those on the front lines—counties, cities and towns and their emergency responders—are left to figure out how to fend off terrorist threats with inadequate funding, personnel, information or tools.

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Honoring September 11th’s dead demands we identify the shortcomings in our defenses against those threats and fix them. That requires asking and resolving very prickly questions, something humans also are not good at. But history has proven that we answer such questions now or face them again after the next terrible event.

Among the prickly questions is whether we use deadly force from aircraft to head off what appears to be an imminent terrorist attack. The barroom answer is “Duh!” But the local and federal officials involved in answering that question know it requires a more sophisticated answer. Clearly, prospects are high that an aircraft—particularly a law enforcement helicopter—will be the only means of responding promptly to a perceived imminent threat. The only means of disrupting that threat may be to fire upon it. But the police don’t work that way, for good reason. When they fire, they know that death is possible, and they must be certain that the risk to innocent bystanders from a stray bullet is minimal. Being certain of either in the heat of the chase is damn near impossible. Does that mean we do nothing, that we set aside this tool of airborne use of force?

Clearly, the answer is no. It is unthinkable to have an asset in position to disrupt an attack, yet be restricted to only observing that attack. The difficult questions of tactics, procedures, identification, confirmation and liability must be answered so that this last-resort defense can be placed in our arsenal. Is it inevitable that it be used? “I hope not,” one leader in the effort said. But we must be prepared.

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