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Breaking News:
America Attacked

With Jim Walsh
Terrorism Expert

Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001; 5 p.m. EDT

In a horrific sequence of destruction, terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center and the twin 110-story towers collapsed Tuesday morning. Explosions also rocked the Pentagon and spread fear across the nation.

Jim Walsh, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, was online to discuss the apparent terrorist attacks.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Jim Walsh: As I think about what happened today my first concern is for the families of the people who are injured who or may have lost their lives but I am also concerned about where we go from here, both in terms of how we handle this as a country domestically, and the actions we may be taking abroad. This is a time when Americans should take a deep breath.

College Park, Md.: Do you think the current administration's alienating unilateral foreign policy may have provoked this attack or is likely to provoke further attacks of the same sort?

Jim Walsh: I am no fan of President Bush's unilateralist stance. I think it will ultimately undermine U.S. security, but I hesitate to attribute today's tragedy to the President's previous actions. Most terrorism is locally driven. Studies show that suicide bombers, for example, commit terrorist acts in the local zone of conflict. Irish bombs go off in Ireland, Sri lanka bombs go off in Sri lanka, etc. So this act of terrorism is most likely driven by intensely felt local issues and local conflict.

Dave, San Jose, Calif.: How can the US government, in a mood to do "something" about these terrorist attacks and to prevent any future attack, not bend the Constitution to stomp on the rights & freedoms that we as citizens of this country hold dear?

Jim Walsh: Dave,

You raise a point that deeply troubles me. People are angry now and that anger will intensify in the coming days as we learn the names and stories of the people who perished in this horrible attack. There will be tremendous pressure to lash out -- pressure on President Bush to take military action and congress to pass new legislation. Even today Tom Brokaw declared that the U.S. was at war and would have to "revisit some of it's freedoms." I fear that we may act rashly and therefore play into the hands of terrorists by taking actions out of anger that do more harm than good.

Philadelphia, Pa.: Bin Laden has come up often as a potential source for this attack because of the organization of the attack. Obviously there was a good deal of organization behind the attack, but what was it about this that makes Bin Laden's organization more likely than others to have been the perpetrator?

Jim Walsh: Good question.

Bin Laden is certainly the worlds most famous terrorist and it is not surprising that people point at him first. A second reason however is that he is from a Saudi family and has a lot of money. He is able to mobilize more financial resources than the average terrorist. What is interesting from me is the organizational sophistication. Most terrorist groups are organized in cells that make complex organizational tasks difficult. I want to emphasize however that it is premature to assign blame.

Pitkin, La.: Have they yet to find out who was behind all of these horrible acts?

Jim Walsh: No. And we won't know for weeks. It took a week to go through the rubble after the Oklahoma Bombing. It will take weeks to go through the debris and to piece together what actually happened. One of my concerns is that people lave already begun to point fingers at potential culprits. It should be remembered that after the Oklahoma bombing the view was that this was an act of Middle East terrorism. American's committed acts of violence against Arab Americans but this turned out to be completely wrong. On the first attack on the World Trade Center people pointed to one set of suspects and again it turned out that they were wrong. This incident requires that we mourn and that we pursue the killers, but that we do so in a sober and deliberate manner without presupposition.

Hong Kong: What are the chances of another wave of anonymous terrorist attacks on American cities? What should be done to counter such kind of aerial suicide terrorism?

Jim Walsh: I think it would be a mistake to presume that this is the first in a wave of terrorist attacks on U.S. homeland. The attack today, while horrendous, is not typical of terrorism.

Future actions to prevent terrorism will depend on the results of the action today. At this point we do not know, but rest assured there will be intense investigations of security at Boston Logan Airport for example, where I take my flights, and other airports around the country.

You may remember that in previous decades the U.S. experienced an outbreak of airline hijacking. At that time airport procedures were revised and hijacking largely disappeared. I expect that again we will look at new ways to reduce the chance of future incidents.

Baltimore, Md.: Do you see this as a failure of US intelligence?

Jim Walsh: It is clear from the sophistication of this operation that it involved a long period of planning and preparation. Whether mistakes were made, or whether our inability to detect the terrorist planning reflects honest limits on our intelligence capabilities, remains to be seen. It is certain however that in the years to come this will be one of the most studied and analyzed events in law enforcement.

Barcelona, Spain (EU): Will this attack mean the start of a unilateral war against countries that protect terrorists? In which way may that affect the US economy?

Jim Walsh: First it is unlikely that the war against terrorism will be unilateral. The European community and others share U.S. concerns against terrorism, as evidence by the world response to the Lockerbie bombing. The economic cost of sanctions is likely to be small, because state sponsors of terrorism are for the most part poorer countries - e.g. Afghanistan.

Cranbrook, BC, Canada: I have a paper to write for my cross cultural issues class, on cultural repercussions, pertaining to the terrorist actions today, and was wondering if you could give me some advice. Thank You for you time.

Jim Walsh: My concern is that Americans may presume that this act has been taken with the full support and blessing of the broader Islamic and Arab community. After Oklahoma Arab-Americans were victims of violence perpetrated by other Americans. In general Americans have not done a very good job at distinguishing Arabs in Egypt from Palestinians in the West Bank from Muslims in Indonesia half a planet away. I am concerned that an incident like this may fuel antagonism against Arab Americans, Arab citizens of other countries and members of the Muslim faith. This would be a terrible mistake.

Westminster, Md.: I'm sure many are wondering...why?
How do terrorists justify attacks that result in such massive loss of life? Is it religion -- a holy mission? Revenge? Recognition for such deeds, outside of a very small community, would surely be self-destructive. What is the motivation?

Jim Walsh: The nature of terrorism has evolved over the past several decades. During the 1970s many terrorist had purely political or ideological aims -- like the Red Brigade. Increasingly conflicts have been of an ethnic, religious or locally territorial nature. It is worth pointing out that while no one would ever condone terrorism, that nation states often engage in wars in which thousands and sometimes millions of innocent civilians perish. Unfortunately people all to easily find justifications for killing innocent people. In the coming days we will see calls for military strikes, which even if they hit their targets will cause the deaths of innocent people.

Charlottesville, Va.: What is the significance of today's date, September 11th? I know that some terrorist groups choose to attack on days of importance to them, such as a leader's martyrdom, a holy day, etc.

Jim Walsh: There has been speculation that today's attack has something to do with the anniversary of the Camp David Accords or tomorrows anniversary of the sentencing of a Bin Laden related or associated terrorist. It should be said however that it is not difficult to find some anniversary to which an attack can be tied.

Sau Paulo City, Brazil: What has happened to American intelligence? It seems that after the cold war, western intelligence agencies have frozen, not preventing anything about terrorism from fundamentalists?

Jim Walsh: U.S. intelligence agencies have suffered from moral and other problems over the past decade but it would be a mistake to draw conclusions based on one incident no matter how horrible the incident is. You may remember that law enforcement officials effectively intervened around the time of the millennium and prevented planned terrorist attacks. In general however Americans and especially those living abroad have traditionally overestimated the capabilities of American intelligence. People always see the hand of the CIA behind every bad thing that happens. America's intelligence agencies have the benefit of bright minds and sophisticated technology. But at the end of the day they are made up of people like you and me.

Jim Walsh: Today has been a dark day in America, but we should be careful not to draw rash conclusions, to take impulsive actions or to draw the wrong lessons from this incident. We should give law enforcement the opportunity to do their job and have the patience and discipline to find the truth and take the appropriate actions.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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