It’s too soon for most of us to do much more than weep until we learn who was behind those Boston bombs. But I’ll bet many Americans felt like I did when they heard the news and turned on their TVs Monday – and then had fresh pangs of anxiety Tuesday when word came that American Airlines was canceling all its flights (for what turned out to be a computer glitch) and that an envelope sent to the office of Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker had tested positive for ricin. (The alarm grew only sharper Wednesday when it became clear that other lawmakers and even the president himself were also sent mailings with ricin.)
The old 9/11 reflex, long buried, rises quickly again. Is something bigger afoot? Is America under attack? Our quotidien sense of normalcy, our luxurious bath of complacency – our wishful thinking? — is jolted by a shock from Copley Square.
The uneasiness that descended with the Boston attacks also sent me back to a chilling 9,600-word Atlantic Monthly cover story written by former counterterrorism official Richard A. Clarke in January 2005. In “Ten Years Later,” Clarke offered an imaginary look backward from a vantage point a decade after 9/11, sketching an alternative history that might unfold – a darker path that terror might take in the United States, with awful ramifications. As I read Clarke’s scenario again in the wake of this week’s bombings, I couldn’t help thinking that something like his scenario could still transpire, because a free society is so vulnerable.
Clark’s alternate history of the future begins with a suicide bomber walking into a Las Vegas casino and detonating herself at a roulette table, while a comrade drives his RV filled with explosives into a hotel and does the same. The resulting devastation shrinks tourism and leaves unemployment in Vegas at 28 percent in perpetuity. Similar attacks take place days later at tourist attractions in California, Texas, Florida and New Jersey.
But these are only preludes. Months later, at the height of the holiday shopping season, four men disguised as mall security guards and armed with legally acquired submachine guns, shotguns and dynamite enter a giant mall in Minnesota and execute hundreds of shoppers before being killed by SWAT teams. Similar attacks take place at major malls in Chicago, Dallas, Virginia and Los Angeles. Retail stores in big cities everywhere see sales plummet overnight as consumers retreat to the safety of Internet shopping.
Soon after come what are later dubbed “Subway Day” and Railroad Day,” when simultaneous attacks via the kind of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that resemble the ones used in the Boston attack cripple transportation networks and kill hundreds in big cities.
As these attacks unfold, Washington responds with Patriot Acts II and III, which, among other things, permit large-scale round-ups of illegal immigrants and members of ethnic groups suspected of hiding terrorists. Tens of thousands of people end up in makeshift detention camps, which, despite protests from the ACLU and other critics, command broad popular support. As attacks escalate, authorities are allowed to hold suspects for seven days without legal process or access to a lawyer, a time frame that slips, after further attacks, to three years, subject to review every six months by the attorney general.
Meanwhile, a biometric “National Transportation Security Identity Card” is made mandatory, containing one’s picture, fingerprints, retinal signature, Social Security number, birthday and address. The card must be shown to get through stations at trains, subways and airports; automobiles are to be equipped with readers without which their ignition systems won’t work.
None of this stops the cyberattacks a few years later, which wreak havoc on everything from nuclear power plants to stock exchanges to power grids. Or the use of small corporate-style jets packed with explosives that crash into chlorine gas facilities in New Jersey and Delaware, killing and injuring hundreds. When Canada refuses to let U.S agents hunt suspected terrorists in that country, we erect a “northern wall” whose radar, barbed wire and phalanxes of security workers make the border look like the fortress we’ve erected alongside Mexico. “Americans can’t remember the days when the sight of police officers with automatic weapons and body armor was rare,” Clarke wrote.
As Clarke noted in 2005, his piece didn’t describe anything terrorists weren’t already considering. And while the scenario he sketched was grim, it wasn’t nearly “worst-case,” because it didn’t involve biological or nuclear weapons.
I dig this up not to scare people but to remind us how fortunate we’ve been to date. Whether we’ve been lucky or smart, or both, is hard to parse out precisely.
Thousands of dedicated professionals work overtime every day to keep America safe. It’s always clear the stakes are high. But this week, Clarke’s frightening tale is a reminder of how fragile our freedoms really are. If our vigilance falters and we face determined enough enemies who are willing to die, we could be only a few horrific assaults away from a lockdown.