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Are we prepared for the next 9/11?

ATTORNEY General John Ashcroft's warning of the fire next time underscored what those involved with the security of the United States have been worrying about since 9/11: a second spectacular attack on the American homeland.

After the March 11 attack on Madrid, an Al Qaeda spokesman said the terrorist organization was about 90 percent ready to hit the United States hard. The evident lack of coordination between the Justice Department and Homeland Security is but one indication of how vulnerable and unready America is.

The coming months will present several target-rich environments: the meeting of industrialized countries in Georgia, the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and the Republican Convention in New York. Unlike the Madrid bombing, which killed about 200 people, a second 9/11 in the United States, to achieve the desired results, would have to be as spectacular or more so than the first.

The Madrid bombing resulted in a change of government, but a terrorist strike in the United States would most likely result in people rallying around the president, and Al Qaeda is well enough informed to know that. However, according to Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center of the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew's University, Scotland, Al Qaeda might prefer "regime maintenance." Iran and Syria, he said, would both favor regime change in the United States, fearing they might be next on the neocon list. That is why both countries have an incentive to keep the Iraq pot boiling. But Al Qaeda would be happy to see the current US policies stay in force because Iraq and the perceived American complicity in the injustice to the Palestinians have helped Al Qaeda's goal of making George Bush's war on terrorism a clash of civilizations.

Local communities are doing their best to prepare for the worst despite a lack of funds. New York City has reportedly recruited 28,000 doormen and janitors to keep their eyes and ears open for suspicious activity. A security awareness training program is being prepared for them. The Coast Guard has a maritime awareness program in which civilian sailors and fishermen can help keep watch on the nation's coastline.

About 100 health departments across the country have been preparing surveillance systems, Dr. Tracee Treadwell of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told The Boston Globe. The idea is to monitor every illness that comes into hospitals looking for clusters of sickness in order to detect a biological or chemical attack early.

The ultimate nightmare is a nuclear attack. Records left behind when the Taliban collapsed in Afghanistan revealed that Al Qaeda was hoping to obtain a nuclear weapon. We know from Bob Woodward's "Plan of Attack" that British intelligence ran a sting operation, pretending to be Islamic extremists, in which a Pakistani scientist showed them sophisticated drawings of how to make a nuclear bomb and of how to put together an easy-to-make "dirty bomb" -- a device in which conventional explosives wrapped in radioactive material could contaminate many city blocks for a very long time. If the father of Pakistan's bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, sold nuclear secrets to North Korea, Libya, and Iran, who can say that Osama bin Laden wasn't shopping in Khan's nuclear bazaar as well?

Some American cities have radiation detection equipment, and the United States is providing the Greek police with similar devices to help guard the Olympic Games, which are destined to be the most important, high-profile target in Europe this summer.

The most vulnerable Achilles' heel is the port system into which containers pour with a minimum of inspection. The United States is making efforts to have containers inspected at their point of origin before they get to the United States, but the system is by no means perfected.

Simple changes such as re-routing deadly chemical-bearing tank cars that railroads routinely haul through American cities has been stalled in Congress because of political lobbying on behalf of industries.

A year ago The Council on Foreign Relations issued a scathing report charging that the federal government is drastically underfunding state and local responders, which will be the first to answer the call in a terrorist attack. The report also said that America has "no systematic national standard that defines the essential minimum capabilities for emergency responders." Too little has changed for the better since the report was written.

The unanswerable question will always be how much is enough. There is no such thing as 100 percent security. If terrorists want to attack the economic well-being of this country, as Al Qaeda has said it does, all it has to do is threaten enough and watch the money flow out as blood flows from an open vein. But no matter how you cut it, the country has not adequately prepared itself for another catastrophic event such as befell a sleeping America on that September morning in 2001.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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