Preparing for the Worst

Tuesday, April 30, 2002
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The terrorist attacks of September 11 have made Americans aware

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of many painful truths. We are hated and resented (in part because we are envied) by many people around the world who are looking for simple answers to the failures of their own countries and the miseries and disappointments of their own lives. Feeling powerless, these people despise the world’s only superpower. Feeling humiliated, they view American pride and success as outrageous arrogance. Some of these people are indoctrinated, organized, and trained to inflict shocking and indiscriminate violence on the United States and other Western democracies that they somehow see as the cause of their suffering or grievance. Whatever their rhetoric, these terrorists do not have concrete and limited goals. They glory in destruction, and their nihilist impulses have no limits. They want to kill as many Americans as possible. They want to destroy the United States and roll back several centuries of human progress.

September 11 was a wake-up call for the United States and the civilized world. Horrific though the destruction and loss of life were, they pale in comparison to what could happen if terrorists—steeped in a maniacal hatred of the United States, democracy, and modernity—acquire chemical and especially biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction. In fact, Osama bin Laden has declared it a "religious duty" of Muslims to acquire these weapons, and his Al Qaeda network has been in hot pursuit of them. Other extremist groups and cults, such as the Japan-based Aum Shinrikyo, have also sought to acquire such weapons. It is quite likely that one or another such group will attempt a terrorist attack on the United States with a weapon of mass destruction some time in the next decade or two.

We need to mobilize on every possible front to prevent them from succeeding. The most urgent challenge is to prevent the proliferation of the technologies and raw materials of mass destruction, especially nuclear and biological agents. We must greatly accelerate efforts to secure nuclear weapons materials and sites in the former Soviet Union. Former Senator Sam Nunn—who has led, with Senator Richard Lugar, a visionary effort to get a grip on the proliferation problem—estimates that there is now "very poor" protection for 60 percent of Russian nuclear materials. Through a program of assistance, we have helped the Russians improve security at sites containing the other 40 percent, but, says Nunn, "at the current rate, it will take 20–25 years to secure it all."

We also need to make more energetic efforts to employ former Soviet nuclear and biological weapons scientists in nonthreatening activities; to help new nuclear powers such as India and Pakistan secure their nuclear materials; to forbid the sale of weapons materials and dual-use technologies to irresponsible states such as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea; to monitor and foil proliferation activities through greatly enhanced intelligence efforts; and to enhance our homeland security.

We must face the possibility, however, that none of this may be enough—that we will not mobilize fast enough, vigorously enough; that international cooperation will not be vigilant and vigorous enough; that we may simply in the end be unlucky.

There is no way terrorists can mobilize enough power to destroy the United States. But with a crude, well-placed atomic weapon, they could wipe out downtown Washington, destroying our government and our political system. Even an attack with a highly deadly and infectious biological agent might wipe out most of Congress and the entire presidential line of succession before we could understand and counter it.

"These terrorists do not have concrete and limited goals. They glory in destruction itself."

These possibilities remain remote, but it is irresponsible for a great nation not to insure against an event that, however remote, would be utterly catastrophic if it occurred. The insurance we need, as part of our strategy for fighting terrorism and defending our political system and way of life, is constitutional. We must not allow any possibility that a terrorist attack could leave us without a legitimate, constitutional government. Political legitimacy in a democracy requires clear rules for determining who will govern.

We need a constitutional amendment to provide for the immediate replenishment of our national government in the case of a catastrophic attack on America. Currently, the line of presidential succession runs through the vice president, the Speaker of the House, the Senate president pro-tem, and then the members of the Cabinet beginning with the secretary of state. The entire line is composed of officials who live and work in Washington and who could conceivably be killed simultaneously in a terrorist attack on Washington. We could draw on the genius of our federal system by designating the 50 state governors (ranked by each state’s population) as next in line of succession, after the Cabinet secretaries.

The same principle should apply to congressional succession. Governors are already authorized to fill Senate vacancies by appointment, but there is no procedure other than a special election for filling a House seat. State legislatures could be authorized by a constitutional amendment to fill vacancies to the House of Representatives when more than one-third of the seats in the House are vacant. We need similar provisions to replace the Supreme Court. William Safire suggests that the current Court could "designate a shadow Supreme Court, made up of the chief judges of the federal appeals courts."

"The most urgent challenge? Halting the spread of the technologies and raw materials of mass destruction."

These are merely ideas. A bipartisan commission appointed jointly by the president and Congress could, through sober and reflective deliberation, develop a package of constitutional amendments and legislation to fill the gaps in our political readiness. While they are doing so, the president should designate and minimally prepare a site that could function as the nation’s capital if Washington, D.C., should be rendered uninhabitable or temporarily dysfunctional by a weapon of mass destruction.

These are horrible matters to contemplate. But it is sheer hubris to think that because we are so rich, so smart, so technologically advanced, so democratic, and so justified in our cause, we cannot be brought down. In an era of asymmetrical warfare, our nation’s capital is vulnerable. We cannot allow for even the remote prospect that a well-placed, well-timed terrorist attack could sever the 225-year continuity of our democracy and leave us utterly devoid of legitimate national authority.