Although almost 13 years have passed since 9/11 — and a just-opened museum on the site of the New York City attack puts that event safely in the past tense — a very scary novel and an anxiety-inducing documentary have left me wondering about the nature of continuing terrorist threats.
Our government kept us on edge for years with the notion that 9/11 was just the start of a wave of U.S. terrorism.
More than one “senior official” told us that it was “not a matter of if…but when” another “weapon of mass destruction” was used in this country. The fact that the first attack didn’t use any weapons but instead turned our own shoddy airport security and commercial jet airliners against us, didn’t inspire much confidence in the forecasting abilities of those officials.
Cynics would say that the government was using scare tactics to bolster support for its misguided military response to 9/11, but that failed car-bombing in Times Square a few years ago demonstrated a continuing possibility of one well-placed attack once again throwing the country into a morale tailspin.
I still shudder to think what would have happened if that would-be bomber was not technically inept and a major explosion had taken place on that beautiful Saturday afternoon, a few feet from the Broadway theater where “The Lion King” is playing. We’d probably still be feeling the personal and financial repercussions in this region. When would tourists have begun going back to Times Square and Broadway shows?
Over the past week or so, a new novel and a recent documentary have fueled my dormant anxiety.
Terry Hayes’ justly praised first novel “I Am Pilgrim” (Harper) follows a many-years-in-the-planning attempt to destroy the United States by unleashing smallpox in doctors’ offices and medical facilities all over the country.
Adding to the chilling premise is the protagonist’s depiction of 9/11 as “an intelligence failure of historic proportions. The overriding mission of the hugely expensive United States’ intelligence community was to protect the homeland and not since Pearl Harbor had these all-powerful organizations screwed up with such spectacular and public results.”
With “I Am Pilgrim” being a commercial thriller, we know going in that the nameless super-agent protagonist will foil the terrifying plot — the story is told in the past tense — but the details of the years that it took to create the virus and to figure out how to get it into the U.S. override the feeling of comfort that comes at the end of the novel because the terrorist plan seems so plausible.
Our “security” planning looks to be as lame as ever — i.e. did you read about the teenage kid who snuck into the “Freedom Tower” recently?
Security is the subject of the German documentary “The Fear That Has 1,000 Eyes” that was recently made available for downloading at no extra charge from Amazon Prime.
Dagmar Brendecke and Walter Brun zero in on the visual surveillance methods that have become universal over the last decade — those cameras that track everyone in the public spaces of every major city. The filmmakers’ primary source is Stephen Graham, author of “Cities, War and Terrorism,” who draws parallels between the walled cities of ancient times and the architectural devices and video surveillance that now perform a similar function in terms of protecting a modern city from those dedicated to its destruction.
Cities might be more physically secure than they were on Sept. 10, 2001, but, the film tells us, terrorists are now likely to turn our Internet technology against us in a manner similar to the use of commercial aviation 13 years ago. We are so dependent on computers and the Internet for nearly every aspect of modern life that a cyber attack would be much more deadly than any single bomb going off in one city.
“The Fear That Has 1,000 Eyes” shows us how electrical and water systems could be brought to a halt by a well planned cyber attack, and how the commercial life of the country could be stopped with well-placed assaults on banking and credit clearing computer systems.
The novel and the film revive those “when not if” thoughts, but the target date remains as mysterious as ever.