U.S. Society Now Forced to Think About the Unthinkable Over and Over

It barely made the newspapers late last week when the FBI released a national alert warning that Al Qaeda terrorists may be planning an attack on passenger trains inside the U.S.

That news didn’t capture much attention because the media were riveted on the arrests of two men linked to the sniper attacks that had been terrorizing Washington for three weeks. One form of terrorism squeezed out the other.

That’s what it’s been like for Americans of late. The cataclysmic violence of Sept. 11, 2001. The anthrax scare. The shoe bomber. Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A nuclear North Korea. The sniper. The unthinkable, on a regular basis, made real.

People go on living their lives, because there is nothing else they can do, but the sense that something changed is difficult to escape.


On the morning after the sniper suspects were caught, one Washington-area man told the New York Times: “With these shootings, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, anthrax -- it seems like anything can happen, anytime.”

That feeling may be especially acute in Washington after three weeks of killings, chilling equally for being random and systematic. But Americans everywhere might echo those words.

This open-ended anxiety is uncharted territory for U.S. society. The U.S. mainland appeared immune from attack even during World Wars I and II, and all but the very hottest moment (the Cuban missile crisis) of the Cold War. And while ordinary crime has always generated fear, the new cascade of domestic and foreign dangers seems different: larger, more organized, more difficult to avoid.

Attack from another nation still seems a very distant threat. Notwithstanding some suggestions to the contrary from President Bush, few Americans probably worry that Iraq has the means or motive to directly attack this country. A North Korea armed with nuclear weapons and the missile systems to deliver them would be more worrisome, but the certainty of an overwhelming nuclear counterattack will likely prove as reliable a deterrent as it did against the Soviet Union.


The real change in the atmosphere is the danger of stateless terrorism. The driving force behind Congress’ approval of a resolution authorizing Bush to invade Iraq was the fear that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might, at some point, give chemical and biological weapons to terrorists. No one was sure Hussein would ever ally with Al Qaeda. But after last year’s terrorist attacks, few wanted to take the chance that he wouldn’t.

The shadow of Sept. 11, 2001, also loomed over the sniper ordeal. Throughout, the greatest fear for many in the region -- and probably across the nation -- was that the attacks would be linked to an organized terrorist plot.

The arrest of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo didn’t immediately bear out those fears: So far, at least, nothing has linked them to known terrorist groups.

But, characteristically for this new age of uncertainty, neither did the arrests entirely dispel the anxiety. Questions remained about Muhammad’s possible sympathy for Al Qaeda and last year’s terrorist attacks. Was he, as a counter-terrorism expert wondered, not a member, or even a supporter of any terrorist group, but a “cheerleader” who betrays no sign of supporting the cause until he strikes?


And even if no links emerge between the suspects and organized terrorism, and money proves more their motivation than any political grievance, there remains the fear that terrorists might simply follow the path the two have laid out.

If police are correct, the two men shattered the routines of daily life and unnerved a vast metropolitan area -- the highest aspirations for terrorists -- with no more equipment than a single Bushmaster rifle that sells for as little as $800 and a beat-up 1990 Chevrolet Caprice that Muhammad bought for $250. That’s leverage terrorists understand.

The sniper attacks represented a kind of language the 9/11 terrorists might have understood too.

Last year, Jane Garvey, then the Federal Aviation Administration chief, said government wasn’t prepared for Sept. 11 because no one had imagined an attack on that scale. For all the revelations that have emerged in congressional testimony about CIA or FBI missteps, she was fundamentally right. The terrorists didn’t so much slip around U.S. defenses as leap over them: They launched an attack that no one had defended against because no one had conceived of it.


Something of the same grim evolution was evident in the sniper assault. As the endless parade of experts kept reminding, the sniper slayings didn’t precisely fit any of the patterns of serial or spree killers. It’s no wonder the suspects, when caught, didn’t match the profile that any of the experts drew: Like the Sept. 11 plotters, the snipers created a new form of terrorism.

And now, as after Sept. 11 and anthrax and the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, the agencies charged with protecting U.S. security must search for the best responses to this fresh kind of threat.

Like the aftermath of Columbine, the pursuit of answers now will be complicated by the polarizing domestic politics of guns. But if ballistic fingerprinting of the Bushmaster rifle might have helped authorities track the weapon more quickly to Washington state, where its manufacturer says it was first sold, gun rights’ advocates will have a heavy burden to show why law enforcement should not receive that tool.

Still, the case also shows the limits of government action in preventing these new dangers. Congress banned assault weapons to reduce the risk of these tragedies; but the Bushmaster rifle, which didn’t fall under that ban, still proved more than adequate to this grisly task. In the same way, smart law enforcement, tougher defenses and military action against rogue states may reduce the threat of more terrorist attacks but won’t eliminate it -- as the FBI’s overshadowed warning last week suggests.


And that is the catch in the throat behind the sigh of relief that the sniper threat has apparently ended. One danger is gone. But others, as unpredictable as these attacks, still wait. After the last year-plus, more of the unimaginable now seems almost inevitable.


Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ Web site at: