Have Americans become complacent about terrorism?

Have Americans become complacent about terrorism?

Staff WriterSeptember 11, 2005 

When those towers fell on that flash-frozen day of death and horror, the comfortable consciousness of a nation was shattered and seared. When that hijacked jetliner slammed into the Pentagon and another plowed into a Pennsylvania field not far from its presumed White House target, Americans gained a new slogan of remembrance and vengeance.

As brief as a police radio code for a homicide, this catchphrase was perfect for the Internet era -- 9/11. And like a slightly older piece of numeric slang -- 24/7 -- it held the round-the-clock promise that Americans would never forget Sept. 11, 2001.

Four years later, though, there are signs the power of that implied pledge has faded, diminished by time and diverted by the demands of everyday life, the rising body count in Iraq and the fresh shock of domestic disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

And that raises two intertwined questions:

Are Americans more complacent and less willing to stay the current national course of what President Bush has dubbed the war on terror?

And is the country better prepared to deal with disasters both natural and manmade, be it a killer hurricane that has flooded huge swaths of a major American city or the next terrorist strike on American soil?

The images of Sept. 11 are unforgettable and enduringly riveting. But experts say the strength of that memory has been softened by the absence of another terrorist strike on U.S. soil and diffused by growing dissatisfaction with President Bush and his conduct of the war in Iraq, underscored by the highest negative ratings of his administration.

Though nearly 7 in 10 Americans say they think about the attacks at least once a week, the threat of terrorism is no longer a constant, full-volumed fear, poll results show. Instead, it's a nasty note of background noise, present but unnoticed unless there's a violent reminder, such as the London subway bombings in July or the Madrid train bombings of 2004.

When prompted by dreaded reality, Americans say they're uneasy about their safety from another terrorist attack and the nation's readiness to deal with disaster.

Recent Gallup Polls show a significant minority of Americans believe the war against terror has taken a turn for the worse.

Polls also show a majority think the war in Iraq has made this country more vulnerable -- a rejection of President Bush's message that war there makes it safer here.

Before Hurricane Katrina struck, Americans gave state and local agencies a lukewarm vote of confidence that they were better prepared to handle disaster. But as evidenced by the sluggish response to the massive flooding in New Orleans, that confidence might have been misplaced.

Some of the same problems that proved so deadly to New York firefighters crushed by the Twin Towers collapse have plagued the emergency response to Katrina despite millions in federal Homeland Security grants aimed at solving them. These include mismatched radio frequencies and a lack of coordination among state, federal and local agencies.

The devastation of Hurricane Katrina has also sharpened the focus of some critics who say the war in Iraq and the misplaced priorities of homeland security spending have weakened America's ability to handle national disasters.

U.S. Rep. David Price worries that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been folded into the Department of Homeland Security, has lost its famed agility. The Chapel Hill Democrat also points out that homeland security money given to state and local law enforcement and emergency management agencies has been offset by cuts to traditional grant programs relied on by police and fire departments to pay for equipment, training and more personnel.

And that could hamper the ability of police, firefighters and other "first responders" to handle their dual responsibilities -- handling the aftermath of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

"It's not just terrorism we're preparing for," said Price, a member of the homeland security subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. "We need to make sure we're not trading one for the other. I'm afraid, to some extent, we are."

Edge wears off

Americans are learning to live with terrorism, Price said.

"There's no question the novelty of the threat, the sharpness has diminished," he said. "You can't always be living in apprehension and fear. There's a question of what kind of balance you strike between going about your business and having a heightened awareness of the danger."

Others agree.

"I would say the American people are resigned, they're not complacent," said Richard Kohn, chairman of the curriculum in peace, war and defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Duke's Scott Silliman, director of the the law school's Center for Law, Ethics and National Security, said the American people are becoming more sophisticated in their approach to terrorism.

As proof, Silliman pointed to the recent debate that swirled around the renewal of the Patriot Act and to poll results that show how many of their civil liberties Americans are willing to trade for greater security.

In mid-July, a Gallup Poll showed 66 percent of Americans favored instituting a required national identity card. But 60 percent opposed allowing the government to search a list of books people have checked out of the library. More than 90 percent opposed allowing police to enter their homes without search warrants.

The question of whether America is safer from terrorism draws an unabashed yes-and-no from experts such as Silliman and Kohn. It's an answer complicated by a war in Iraq that has changed the focus of the fight against terrorism, diverted scarce dollars and claimed the service of thousands of National Guard troops who would otherwise be available for domestic duty.

On the other hand, the federal government will spend $49.1 billion on homeland security in 2005, nearly triple the amount earmarked for that purpose prior to Sept. 11, a Congressional Budget Office analysis released in late July states.

That figure covers the full range of domestic homeland security missions, from border security and protection of the nation's transportation system to emergency response, domestic counterterrorism and the guarding of power plants, bridges, national landmarks and federal buildings and installations.

The creation of a national intelligence director, coupled with the provisions of the Patriot Act, make America a safer place, Silliman said.

"There's no question that all the measures taken since that attack ... all these things are steps which, by definition, make this country safer," he said. "But being safer doesn't mean we won't see another terrorist attack."

Others, however, see the CBO analysis as proof of flawed federal priorities. While 68 percent of this year's money is being spent on border and transportation security and on guarding critical infrastructure, only 9 percent is earmarked for domestic counterterrorism and intelligence.

Big bucks for low risks

Too much of this money has been spent in Washington's typical pork-barrel fashion, buying equipment and bolstering facilities where the threat of a terrorist attack is low, said Veronique de Rugy, a tax and budget analyst for the American Enterprise Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank based in Washington.

Even when the money is spent in the right place, it's spent on the wrong thing, she said. As proof, she points to federal dollars devoted to improving security at the nation's 361 seaports, including Morehead City and Wilmington.

In the past four years, more than $700 million has been doled out for domestic port security, she said, which includes more than $7 million in grants secured by the N.C. State Ports Authority. In late June, the authority awarded a $6.43 million construction contract to install fences, lighting, computer-controlled cameras and motion sensors and a biometric card-key system to control access by workers at both ports.

But better fences and cameras won't protect ports from a "dirty bomb" or a bioterrorism device planted inside a cargo container shipped from a foreign country, said de Rugy, noting an inspection rate that hovers around 2 percent. Also, the deployment of more than 400 radiation detectors, which looks good on paper, may be another waste of taxpayer dollars because the machines can't detect weapons-grade uranium shielded by lead.

In contrast to the $700 million figure, $194 million is earmarked for putting U.S. Customs Service agents in foreign ports to inspect cargo bound for the United States.

"What we should be doing is putting our money in those foreign ports, making sure nothing bad is loaded on ships bound for our ports," said de Rugy, who praised the recent pledge to toughen spending priorities by the nation's new Homeland Security chief, Michael Chertoff.

In the wake of Katrina, critics are calling for a frank examination of whether the country is more prepared for a terror attack than the more likely event -- a hurricane or other natural disaster.

But Doug Hoell, director of the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, said such either-or thinking is misguided. In truth, emergency managers have to be ready for both.

"It doesn't matter what caused it; it matters that we're prepared to deal with the consequences," he said. "If we haven't learned a lesson, as a nation, about the potential of a natural disaster, somebody's asleep."

(Researchers Denise Jones and Becky Ogburn contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Jim Nesbitt can be reached at (919) 829-8955 or jim.nesbitt@newsobserver.com.

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