10 September 2006

Terrorism: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

Usually, people think of terrorism as a national issue for the federal government to address. But, the vast majority of the responders killed on 9-11 attacks five years ago weren't employed by the federal government, or even the state. This is almost certain to be true in future terrorist attacks as well.

Local government officials aren't only critical in caring for those harmed by terrorist attacks. Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, who was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death in a federal court in Denver, was apprehended by an alert traffic cop. The impact of local building codes was a key matter of inquiry into both 9-11 and Oklahoma City. And, rebuilding is also ultimately a local matter.

The 9-11 Responders Were From Local Governments

The attacks killed a great many people in addition to the nineteen men who hijacked four planes (emphasis added, citations omitted):

The fatalities were in the thousands, with 2,973 people killed, including 246 on the four planes, 2,602 in New York City in the towers and on the ground, and 125 at the Pentagon. Among the fatalities were 343 New York City Fire Department firefighters, 23 New York City Police Department officers, and 37 Port Authority police officers. An additional 24 people remain listed as missing in the attack on the World Trade Center to this day.

Placing the responsibility on local government was not misguided.

The first responders who swung into action and saved about 16,000 lives by evacuating people from the Twin Towers reported not to President Bush, but to New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. All but a couple hundred of those killed in 9-11 were one of the four planes, killed on or immediately after the impacts, or were above the impact sites in the World Trade Center which put them in a position where it was extremely difficult, if not impossible to rescue them. Only eighteen people from at or above the impact sites in the World Trade Center survived.

About 98% of those whose lives could be saved, other than first responders trying to save the rest, lived. More than 99% of those whose lives were placed at high risk by the terrorists themselves, died. Local New York City police and firefighters did almost everything that could have been done under the circumstances.

Responses Will Generally Be Local

The local nature of the response is something that is likely to be almost universally true. The 9-11 attacks were, by the standards applicable to terrorist acts, almost unthinkably slow. They played out over one hour and seventeen minutes.

Even then, it took time to assess the situation. The very first breaking news reports of the attacks delivered on National Public Radio had suggested that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center, possibly in an accident. It was not absolutely clear that United Flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania had been part of the overall plan until hours after it had crashed -- the passengers themselves might not have guessed what was afoot if they had not received word of similar incidents that had already taken place.

By the time anyone had realized what was going on, it was too late for even supersonic Air Force jets to intervene. Usually, terrorist attacks take only minutes. United Flight 93, where the only responders available in time to act were the passengers on the plane themselves is probably typical.

Often, as in the case of 9-11, many of the most culpable perpetrators are dead before authorities can arrive. Even when culpable perpetrators are discovered, bringing them to justice is no certain thing. Osama bin Laden, the confessed mastermind of the 9-11 attack, is still at large, despite the fact that the United States has devoted about a division of U.S. troops troops for half a decade taking sides in a civil war in Afghanistan in an effort largely motivated by the desire to capture or kill him and his confederates. And, no one real believes that killing or capturing him would end it all.

Who Will Respond In Colorado?

If a terrorist attack ever hits Colorado, those who respond will probably report to the Mayor of a City, most likely the Mayor of Denver, or to a county sheriff, rather than to the Governor or the President.

For example, the fire department that would respond to any incident at the Denver International Airport is a part of the same Denver Fire Department that rushed to the scene a block from my home last week when an elderly woman fell in her house and called 9-1-1, a phone number also staffed by employees who report to Mayor Hickenlooper.

Even the bomb squad is a local function.

Key Decisions Have Already Been Made Locally

If a Denver building is attacked, its survival will have a lot to do with decisions made decades earlier by the building department at a time when terrorism was a trivial concern. There is only one building in all of downtown Denver designed from the ground up specifically with potential terrorist incidents in mind, the Alfred A. Arraj United States Courthouse at 901 19th Street, although several, most notably the Colorado Judicial Heritage Center (which is in the process of being replaced), which is home to the state's appellate courts, was designed with 1960s style riots in mind.

Certainly, no federal or state statutes are necessary to make attempted and completed murders, and conspiracies to commit them, that happen to be motivated by a desire to incite terror criminal under state law.

The Federal Role

This doesn't mean that there is no role for the federal government in addressing terrorism. But, that role is largely relegated to prevention and not emergency response. Even there it is shared with local government.

Prevention is a many pronged thing.

For example, creating a climate where people in a position to know about suspicious activity care enough to report it and feel safe enough to do so is key.

If the motel maid who discovers blueprints and threat letters in a room is an undocumented immigrant, will she feel safe revealing these facts to authorities?

Will a law abiding immigrant computer science professional on a work permit who overhears some people across a parking lot outside an international grocery store discuss a plan that seems suspicious in his native language feel inclined to act further, or feel oppressed by the government to whom he really needs to turn himself? Will U.S. behavior at Abu Grahib or Guantanamo Bay make him think differently?

Good results in both cases depend on something short of a hard line approach to towards immigrants, particularly immigrants who might be in a position to know something of importance.

Also important are matters of foreign policy obscure to the man on the street. How many average Americans even knew that al-Queda existed, let alone why it planned to attack the United States, before 9-11? How many have more than a dim idea of this now? How many people are aware of all of the groups out there threatening to attack the United States as we speak?

Looking back over the 230 year history of the United States, it is perhaps more remarkable that terrorist incidents have been as rare as they have been, given many sustained periods of strong disagreement with U.S. policy, than it is that there have been so many. As much as anything, this has been the case because there are easier alternatives to killing people to achieve political ends in our political system.

In contrast, the political environments that gave rise to the sensibilities of the hijackers, those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Lebanon, have been characterized by oppressive regimes all their lives.

Local leaders can't change that context, but they can work to create the kind of relationships with even marginal communities that keep the doors open to stop future attacks. Without leads there is no meaningful prevention, and without widespread confidence in our system among those in power and those who lost the last election, no one will care enough to act when they ca

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