Outside editorial: The limits of reassurance

The following editorial apeared in Saturday's Washington Post:

Posted: Sunday, October 14, 2001

Word of additional possible anthrax cases Friday made a jittery nation more so. It also gave new force to calls for the Bush administration to do a better job of reassuring Americans. What was the point of raising alarms without telling us how to behave in the face of these threats, many asked. "I'm looking for a zone of personal safety in an unsafe world," one of our colleagues told us Friday. The administration had succeeded in scaring her with its warnings of imminent attacks but then what?

We sympathize to a point. Of course the administration should share as much information as it can and provide as much context as possible for its warnings. But there is no zone of absolute safety as long as the terrorists are at large not on the ground or in the sky, not at work or at home. That is why America is fighting a war. Pursuing the war vigorously will ultimately provide the best defense.

In the meantime, it's worth remembering that, even if the chance is very high of an attack against Americans somewhere, the chance of danger for any one person remains very low. The best response therefore is not to cower in the cellar but to go about one's business with, as President Bush said, a measure of caution and vigilance.

Is that reassuring? Not very. The Sept. 11 attacks opened Americans' eyes to many things: to weaknesses in intelligence and law enforcement agencies, to porous borders, to many vulnerabilities about which the warnings had been copious and copiously ignored. Most of all though the attacks opened Americans' eyes to an enemy that had been hiding in plain sight an enemy that is implacable and, as Bush also said, evil in its willingness to kill innocent civilians for its ends. Those ends have nothing to do with gaining economic or territorial advantage, so there is nothing to negotiate. There is only a war to fight.

Bombs such as those being dropped on Afghanistan will not be the only weapons in the war. Some in the network of terrorists can be arrested and legally prosecuted. Governments can be convinced, militarily but also economically and diplomatically, that it is no longer in their interest to provide shelter and support for enemies of the United States. But until the war is won, no airport screening system, no public health infrastructure, can provide total security. The administration should communicate the risks as fully and as artfully as possible. As time goes on, it should offer more practical advice on how to cope with those risks. It should improve, as it has set out to do, the nation's homeland defense. But most of all it needs to fight and win this war.

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