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How would U.S. respond to another terrorist attack?

Posted: February 27, 2012 - 12:01am

How would America respond to another terrorist attack on its soil?

We never thought very much about that before 9/11, back when the subject of terrorism only came up in discussions about other countries.

The topic is still one we avoid, but it’s not too soon to consider it, because U.S. government officials have been making increasingly louder noises about the possibility of an Iran-backed attack in America.

Obviously, the country should do all it can to “dissuade” anyone from attempting to attack America or its people and, in fact, we have seen several examples of foiled or failed terrorist plots. But what if a plan succeeds — what then?

Recent statements by top Homeland Security and National Intelligence officials bring back memories of that infamous national security briefing given to President George W. Bush back in August 2001. Remember the title? “Al Qaeda Determined to Strike in U.S.”

The government didn’t take it seriously enough, and Americans were not told of the danger. When the attacks happened, a pained and angered nation threw its support behind the president as he launched a war in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. If they had known the repercussions of 9/11, would the attacks have happened?

What would we do now if terrorists struck again?

After reviewing the many things that what went wrong in 2001, one of the decisions the government made was to keep the public better informed of the risks. In the past, officials feared that publicizing threats would cause panic. It turns out those who worried about widespread anxiety if we heard about the danger really were wrong. The latest warnings have stirred barely a ripple. Maybe that’s a sign of a nation maturing about the risks of our turbulent the world. Or, perhaps its evidence that Americans trust those in charge to keep us safe. Or, maybe it’s just denial, refusing to consider unpleasantness once again.

A few days ago, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she’s worried that Hezbollah — a group based in Lebanon but created, funded, and closely allied with Iran — will attempt a terrorist attack on American soil. Hezbollah and Iran are the prime suspects in a series of mostly-bungled attempts on the lives of Israeli officials in Thailand, India, Georgia, Azerbaijan and elsewhere in recent days.

Napolitano’s statements to the House Homeland Security Committee echoed the testimony of James Clapper, director of National Intelligence. Speaking before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence a couple of weeks ago, Clapper said the Iranians “have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States.”

Napolitano said she has been in contact with Jewish organizations, assuming that they would be the principal targets of a terrorist attack. Hezbollah, which is classified as a terrorist organization by a number of Western governments, has a history that includes catastrophically successful attacks on foreign soil.

Argentinean investigators say Hezbollah agents, acting on orders from Iran, carried out the worst terrorist attacks in Argentina’s history in the 1990s. Bombing of the Jewish community center and the Israeli embassy killed more than 100 and injured almost 600 people, many of them maimed for life. The Interpol issued arrest warrants for half a dozen Iranian officials and Hezbollah members in 2007, acting on the work of Argentinean investigators.

Anyone who thinks the current threats only concern Jews should consider that shrapnel does not discriminate. Hundreds of victims in the Buenos Aires bombings were not Jewish.

In any event, the targets may not be Jewish. Last October, the FBI said it uncovered an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington in a plan that openly expected large numbers of casualties.

Napolitano says she doesn’t know of a specific plot against Jewish groups, but obviously the authorities are worried. Security has been noticeably increased.

One of the ways to discourage anyone, particularly Iran, from daring to order a hit against Americans is to openly consider not just the risk but also the repercussions. If the risk is real, as top officials obviously think, we should discuss whether or not the American people would opt to respond with full force.

And speaking openly about the threat, and about what price it would incur, could make Tehran and its allies think a little longer before they risk taking on America.

• Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Readers may send her email at fjghitis@gmail.com.

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