Alarmists and Alarms

The crowd that turned out in a driving rain last Sunday evening to hear experts discuss the terrorist threat was testament to at least one ongoing fact of life since Sept. 11: we’re still scared.

The question is, are we scared enough to do something besides act scared? We know terror lurks. And the mixed bag of panelists assembled by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) at the Simon Wiesenthal Center offered enough frightening scenarios to send us all back under the covers.

Consider this chiller, offered up by Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism: The United States Coast Guard inspects just 2 percent of the cargo that arrives in the country’s ports each day. "We have a real problem with our borders," Cantor said. Cantor wants a national identity card that would use a retinal scan and other biometric wizardry to help authorities determine if people are who they say they are.

That prospect concerns even non-card-carrying ACLU members, but what are their brilliant ideas to sift out the Mohammed Atta’s among us? Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral Leon Edney (USN-Ret.), a JINSA adviser and panelist, outlined an even broader world of terror, the result, he said, of U.S. support for autocratic regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

"They are matches waiting to be lit," the admiral said. Edney called for an American foreign policy that is "values-based," the values being unequivocal support for states that practice democracy.

The "special ops" representative on the panel, Brig. General David Grange (USA-Ret.) offered an overview of how American forces operate in a terrorized world. At any given time, these soldiers are on the ground in 70 countries around the globe. That fact, which was probably more comforting before Sept. 11, didn’t shake what seemed to be the panel’s consensus: we are in for more attacks. All the increased military spending President George W. Bush could muster from Congress won’t protect us from the radicalized spawn of repressive regimes.

Thankfully, in his State of the Union address, Bush named Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah as part of the "terrorist underworld," something he was reluctant to do immediately following Sept. 11.

Then there’s the homegrown threat.

Two weeks ago, journalist Steven Emerson spoke to large audiences at Valley Beth Shalom, Sinai Temple and the Jewish Community Relations Council about the radical Muslim movements alive and well on American soil.

Emerson has been delivering this message for years now. Suddenly, people are listening. "I’ve not changed my views," he told me during an interview at his hotel, "but everything else has changed around me."

As he had in the past, he still identified Muslim groups some in our region that promote anti-Western rhetoric here and abroad, and blasted Jewish groups that think dialogue is the best way to deal with demagogues.

"There’s a tendency to think dealing with these people through the ‘Kumbaya’ culture is the answer to differences of opinion," he said. "All that does is legitimize them."

The answer, said Emerson, is to encourage moderate Moslem intellectuals to speak out while stigmatizing groups espousing militant ideologies.

"Terrorism is 2 percent violence and 98 percent incitement." Infiltrate and isolate groups that preach hatred, said Emerson, who wrote the recently released, "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us." "They’re not illegal but they promote a culture of violence."

If the FBI didn’t take such groups seriously in the past, said Emerson, they had now better start. Nothing focuses governmental efforts like 3,000 dead, and the threat of more.

Back at the JINSA conference, some of the more saber-rattling panelists seemed to be urging America to invade Iraq, dismantle the European Union, pull out of the United Nations, threaten China and uproot the Palestinians (disturbing applause on this point). In the midst of the proceedings, an alarm sounded — a real alarm.

No one in the audience budged, and the panelists kept right on speaking until the noise stopped.

Nuclear and biological terror await us, said Edney at the evening’s end, but we’ve yet take these threats seriously. "Look at how the alarm bell rang and everyone just ignored it," Edney said.

Then again, he didn’t move either.