Terrorism

America Stays Calm

Evil nukes and plane strikes, all in a week's work

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Member of Axis of Evil sets off nuke! Plane smashes into 42-story building on Manhattan's Upper East Side!

It sounded like headlines from a newspaper tossed on our porch by a demon, biking in on wings of pure evil and darkness from an apocalyptic would-be future that 9/11 might have, but so far hadn't, thrust upon us. It was enough to make you beg for the chance to settle back over morning coffee with more Mark Foley instant messages.

And yet, in a week that started with those two stories, we've had ample room for plenty of Mark Warner dropouts, Nobel lit prizes, Madonna adoptions, and act four of the Foley Follies.

The news was not, after all, apocalyptic. The North Korean nuke, most likely, wasn't. (The briefly popular theory that the Hermit Kingdom was "testing a suitcase nuke" appears to be dubious). This still leaves us with the problem of how to treat a nation that wants to threaten us with nukes it may well only be bluffing about.

The Bush administration's reaction has been measured and sensible, pushing sanctions and missile defense but no pre- (or post-, as the case may be) emptive strikes. The whole imbroglio is discomfiting in how it provides further evidence that U.S. spy agencies are giving us very little bang for the buck. But it's encouraging in that it shows a Bush administration willing to be prudent even in the face of provocation from the Joker of our Rogues Gallery. We face, undoubtedly, a scenario with no good choices; we can be grateful Bush has not chosen the particularly bad one of a two -front war.

Even among the warriorati of the Web, reaction has been surprisingly muted and responsible: Davis, California's own Graeco-Roman soldier Victor Davis Hanson writes a thoughtful piece on Korea without once saying that the hoplites need to be dashing posthaste 'cross the Korean DMZ. Indeed, he suggests that the U.S. ought to start pulling its troops away from the Korean border (while simultaneously recommending, in a move that even a non-interventionist can in good conscience support, that we inform them that if they or any of their clients set off a nuke in earnest, our rage shall be that of the berserker). National Review does suggest we at least threaten Kim Jong-Il, Richard Armitage-style, with annihilation, but that is different from actually doing it—and it can be reasonable to try even if you don't actually do so.

The Bush administration, the Japanese, and the war-minded chattering classes are properly treating this provocation, then, seriously but not maniacally. It would be grand, of course, if the eminently sensible move of removing U.S. troops from the immediate reach of North Korean missiles (which can so far threaten the U.S. proper not at all) would have been offered by the administration, but hasn't been. The Cato Institute's Ted Galen Carpenter suggests that that move, offered as a quid pro quo to China, might possibly get the Middle Kingdom to overcome its reluctance to rid itself of the meddlesome maniac on its border—there are some reports that, even as it tries to block U.N. action against North Korea, China's physical support of the Jong-Il regime might be withering.

The New York plane crash story, for its part, went from frightening and tense to a combination of comedy-sketch absurdity and tragedy. A recently disgraced New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle was piloting (maybe just a passenger in) the plane? After a bum season?

Beyond the revelation, heartening for those who feared America got too panicked by 9/11, that planes can still circle the Statue of Liberty, what is most interesting about the incident is this: On one level, the plane crash was nothing to panic about (though it might give pause to the consciences of trash-talking sports radio hacks—or, what the hell, it might not)—just a deeply unfortunate accident, a simple twist of fate, with fatalities held down to just the two men in the plane.

But on another level, it can be either frightening or heartening, because Lidle's ability to joyride in the Manhattan skies was no hometown sports hero special privilege—if it could happen by accident, it could happen on purpose. That is, nothing in particular about our defenses or intelligence is keeping this, like a plethora of other possible sleeper cell terror assaults, from happening every day. And yet they don't happen. Our enemies, for whatever reason, appear to lack the will or capacity to commit the sort of low-level terror that any one of us could imagine. And the only overkill reaction appeared to be by a New York Times city editor, who had 19 different named reporters working on the aftermath story.

The world's a dangerous place, to be sure, though it doesn't seem appreciably more dangerous than it was a week ago, despite this past week's momentarily stomach-churning news attacks. The nuclear genie has been out of the bottle for decades, and in the hands of regimes maniacal, dangerous, and even, like Pakistan, intimately connected with our primary enemies in the current war on radical Islam. As Jim Henley has pointed out, that particular nightmare scenario for rogue proliferation has stayed slumbering for years, even though Pakistan "already fits the profile of a country likely to pass nuclear weapons to terrorists better than Iraq or Iran"—an encouraging sign, and one that shows that grim realities need not mean endless wars.

The dangers of the world, whether from overseas nukes or airborne domestic terror, aren't new and aren't going away. But the measured reactions to this week's parade of might-have-been horribles from the U.S. government, U.S. media, and U.S. people is an encouraging sign that we're well-prepared to muddle along in this dangerous world without panic or thoughtless lashouts, either military or popular. It's an America ready to proceed, calmly but alertly, through a world in which nuclear proliferation and terror are eternal, but far from omnipotent.

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