David H. Hackworth
May 2, 1995


The Oklahoma City bombing, which killed more Americans than were hit by enemy fire during the Gulf War, Somalia and Haiti combined, drives home the point of just how vulnerable our nation is to terrorism, a form of warfare that's long been a deadly scourge overseas. Terrorism, imported or home-grown, has now become America's top threat.

Britain, France, Germany and Israel have been terrorist war zones for decades. Visit their cities and you'll think you're near the front lines: checkpoints, submachine gun-toting police and barricades. They've lived with bombs and death for a long time, and have learned how to deal with the threat.

We need the same drill here, but our government adjusts to the changing face of warfare very slowly. At the outset of World War II we were ready for World War I, and during Vietnam we refought WWII. Now we're getting ready for Desert Storm II.

Washington reacts, not acts, and slowly. Right now, concerned government agencies have no coherent plan for this clear and present danger.

Col. Dave Hunt, a U.S. Army counterterrorist expert, says, "The best defense against terrorism is to find the terrorist before he strikes and defang'em. To do this you must get inside the terrorist organization, abroad or at home, with spies. You need to discover his plans and clobber him before he clobbers you; the best and only way to whip terrorism is with good intelligence."

A high-ranking intelligence officer speaking on the condition of anonymity says, "U.S. intelligence at the national level is broken. The big outfits (CIA, DIA, FBI and NSA) are totally disorganized, don't cooperate with each other, and don't share."

Congress must put a stop to this bureaucratic infighting over power, budgets and turf and demand our spooks get it right. Our lawmakers must also immediately determine how to improve America's counterterrorist effort, then stop posturing and do it.

Some ideas: The U.S. Special Operations Command (Green Berets, SEALS and Air Commandos) consist of the best counterterrorist fighters America has. They, the counterterrorist components of the CIA, FBI, DIA, NSA and the police must be merged and beefed up. This buildup must be approached with the same zeal we displayed the day after Pearl Harbor: the best and brightest must be assigned to this mission, with the super best and super brightest placed in overall charge as the counterterrorist czar.

We must get tough on immigration and tighten up our control of foreign visitors. Our immigration policy is easy to manipulate and abuse. Foreigners and new immigrants should be required to register with the police in every city they visit -- standard procedure in Asia and Europe. Right now, many foreigners come to our country and disappear.

Strong security measures must be established at government buildings, banks, businesses, media outlets, subways, railroad stations and water supplies, and further tightened at airports and ports.

Sales of explosives -- including nitrogen fertilizer -- must be reported to the local police, just as with the sale of firearms.

Suspected citizens and foreigners must be monitored by wiretaps, searched without warrants, and those who are shady detained up to seven days. While for many Americans this will bring back bad memories of the Watergate era when "Big Brother" ignored civil liberties, Britain, France, Germany and Israel have balanced fairness and safety while protecting the lives of the majority. Ask the people of Oklahoma City which they'd prefer.

As in all wars, this threat must have the support of all of the citizens all of the time. Governments don't like to put out bad news, but the terrorism threat can no longer be denied. The citizens must be informed and taught both how to spot and report terrorists and how to protect themselves during attacks.

We must not forget the lessons of Oklahoma City as quickly as we did the World Trade Center bombing. The hardest job fighting terrorism is not ignoring what happened last month, and not letting boredom from inaction decrease alertness. When the guard is dropped, the terrorist strikes.

In Vietnam, I taught my warriors to live by the rule of "stay alert and stay alive." They did, and most survived. And so must we.