William Cohen
William Cohen; drawing by David Levine

It is the Washington idiom but it sounds more like Hollywood—doom, disaster, Armageddon, absolute action. It is the guaranteed new threat to take the place of the run-down cold war, keep us all on our toes, out of pocket, in line, under surveillance. The name of the new game is “catastrophic terrorism” and it is very frightening, not just because it conceivably could happen but even more because of what people who choose to dwell on the possibility, however remote, want to do about it.

“Catastrophic terrorism” is defined as going far beyond what US Secretary of Defense William Cohen calls “the conventional type of terrorism.” That is the work of “cowards,” he says, who “rejoice in the agony of their victims.” They then “retreat to villages where they hide behind the skirts of women and the laughter of children, and dare you to strike back. And strike back, we will.”

But the threat of reprisal will not work against “biological and chemical weapons and cyber-terrorism,” he said, because it is too hard to find out who used them. “Deterrence is not going to be sufficient to prevent their use in future. We have to depend upon defense. We have to depend upon intervention, and we have to promote the safety of our citizens both here and abroad.”

Mr. Cohen spoke on December 8, before the bombing attacks on Iraq. But his arguments came close to Washington’s justification for the Iraq raids—essentially to “degrade” Saddam Hussein’s capacity to use exotic weapons, since there could be no credibility in any claim that bombs could eliminate them. For one thing, United Nations monitors have not been able to find out exactly where they might all be; for another, components and poisons can be distributed in various places for future assembly.

Similar arguments, drawing the same conclusion but going much further in dramatizing threats, are made in an assertive article in the November/December 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs written by two former high-level Defense Department officials and a former staff member of the National Security Council. They are Ashton Carter, John Deutch, and Philip Zelikow. Cohen’s speech and the article appear to launch an intense new campaign focused on weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, now the preferred initials in place of ABC, or atomic, biological, chemical weapons.

The two texts call for elaborate measures and expenditures for preventing and if necessary dealing with such attacks—quite different from standard military procurement and preparation, since the assumption is that the threat could come from anywhere, anytime. Whole new intelligence services are required, and crisis management plans, along with “repeated training and exercises,” to be put into immediate effect regard-less of constitutional rights. As Mr. Cohen put it,

We need more information from a variety of sources. And the more information we gather, the more compromise there is on the right of privacy, which is in pretty short order today in any event. And so, we’re going to have to reconcile how much we’re willing to give up in the way of our individual liberties in order to be secure.

The article by the three authors suggests that a National Terrorism Intelligence Center should have access to domestic information gathered by various law enforcement agencies but now constitutionally safeguarded. The program would justify US armed attack in any part of the world as “prevention” of sensed danger.

“The United States should aspire as a long-term objective to identify every person and all freight entering the country,” the article says, conceding that this cannot be fully achieved soon but urging “even imperfect measures” in the meantime. These would include remote sensing technology, much tighter border controls, and an international system “to ensure that every country’s passports are computer readable, with every country’s passport control stations linked to a database.”

If it were not for Foreign Affairs’s sober reputation and Mr. Cohen’s speech, the temptation would be to consider this part of some grandiose hoax meant to ridicule the nostalgia of strategists with no more reason to draw up vast strategic plans. No cost estimates are provided, but clearly the urge is to order lots of new equipment and services. In addition to expansive new intelligence collection, the program calls for coordinating centers and the centralization of military and civilian equipment purchases so as to ensure both maximum benefit and that the related needs of a large number of cooperating civilian agencies are not overlooked by focus on the military budget. The thesis is: If it conceivably could happen, we must assume that it will, and do something about it now, before it is too late. This is itself the very essence of psychological terrorism, the disaster movie that Hollywood understands so well.

There is a Chicken Little quality about this scare scenario, suggesting that nothing else can be so important as to make sure not to be underneath when the sky is falling. What if the sky isn’t falling? Ah, that is the reward for prudent foresight, is the provocative answer.


This new campaign is particularly pernicious because there is no way to measure the real odds, to assess actual risk compared with the risk of not looking after all sorts of other human needs. Huge expenditures and attention dedicated to a vast open-ended program to combat terrorism would obviously detract from programs for education, health, culture, pensions, all the things we think about when we’re not making a point of thinking that disaster is conceivable. The “willful ostrich,” refusing to see danger, is the epithet so easily pasted on the skeptic.

“Catastrophic terrorism poses an eminent [sic] threat,” the article exhorts. “But the United States can fight back only if it sets the right goals…. It must first imagine success. Only then can it organize itself to attain it.”

It sounds like Ronald Reagan in the most exuberant of his “star wars” fantasies. It should worry everybody, both Americans and others who do not yearn for new menaces to fight and new targets to destroy.

Copyright å© 1999 by Flora Lewis. Reprinted by permission of the New York Times Syndicate.

This Issue

February 4, 1999