News flash: Deadly terrorism existed before 9/11
We've been dealing with the same threats for decades. But we used to be a lot calmer about it, less self-defeating
BY PATRICK SMITH
Here's a scenario:
Middle Eastern terrorists hijack a U.S. jetliner bound for Italy. A two-week drama ensues in which the plane's occupants are split into groups and held hostage in secret locations in Lebanon and Syria.
While this drama is unfolding, another group of terrorists detonates a bomb in the luggage hold of a 747 over the North Atlantic, killing more than 300 people.
Not long afterward, terrorists kill 19 people and wound more than a hundred others in coordinated attacks at European airport ticket counters.
A few months later, a U.S. airliner is bombed over Greece, killing four passengers.
Five months after that, another U.S. airliner is stormed by heavily armed terrorists at the airport in Karachi, Pakistan, killing at least 20 people and wounding 150 more.
Things are quiet for a while, until two years later when a 747 bound for New York is blown up over Europe killing 270 passengers and crew.
Nine months from then, a French airliner en route to Paris is bombed over Africa, killing 170 people from 17 countries.
That's a pretty macabre fantasy, no? A worst-case war-game scenario for the CIA? A script for the End Times? Except, of course, that everything above actually happened, in a four-year span between 1985 and 1989.
If nothing else, it demonstrates how quickly we forget the past. Our memories are short, and growing shorter, it seems, all the time. Our collective consciousness seems to reinvent itself daily, cobbled from a media blitz of short-order blurbs and 30-second segments. There will be a heavy price to pay, potentially, for having developed such a shallow and fragile mind-set.
With respect to airport security, it is remarkable how we have come to place Sept. 11, 2001, as the fulcrum upon which we balance almost all of our decisions. As if deadly terrorism didn't exist prior to that day, when really we've been dealing with the same old threats for decades. What have we learned? What have we done?
Well, have a look at the debased state of airport security today. We continue enacting the wrong policies, wasting our security resources and manpower. We have implemented many important changes since Lockerbie, it's true (actually, many of the new protocols are post-9/11), but much of our approach remains incoherent. Cargo and packages go uninspected while passengers are groped and harassed over umbrellas and harmless hobby knives. Uniformed pilots are forced to remove their belts and endure embarrassing pat-downs.
And what of our rights as citizens? Body scanners are in the news this week. If a decade ago people were told that a day was coming when passengers would need to be looked at naked before getting on a plane, nobody would have believed it. Yet here we are, and what might be next?
Look again at that list above. All of those tragedies, in a four-year span, with some of the attacks actually overlapping. Try to imagine a similar spell today. Could we handle even a fraction of such disaster?
In the 1980s we did not overreact. We did not stage ill-fated invasions of distant countries. People did not cease traveling and the airline industry did not fall into chaos. We were lazy in enacting better security, perhaps, but as a country our psychological reaction, much to our credit, was calm, measured and not yet self-defeating.
This time, thanks to the wholly unhealthy changes in our national and cultural mind-set, I fear it will be different.