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Brzezinski and Mead on Terrorism

March 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And now some closing thoughts from Zbigniew Brzezinski and Walter Russell Mead.

Walter, how do you read the potential for terrorist attacks to flow directly from the war in Iraq?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I think there is a real possibility. Again, some critics of war say there is no connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, but we see that all kinds of radical groups, including al-Qaida are using the U.S. attack on Iraq as a rallying cry. And I think there are a lot of people out there who would like to wreak some serious havoc us and this is a time they would really like to accomplish that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think the American people were properly prepared for this possibility, this potential fallout from this military action?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think they’re being over prepared.

JIM LEHRER: Over prepared?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Over prepared in the sense that I think we are creating an atmosphere of panic in the country, which is unhealthy. We can’t anticipate all terrorist acts. They may occur from time to time; in a number of countries in recent years, there have been a lot of terrorist activity, but they have learned to live with it and to cope with it. We have been struck once, very badly.

But since then, I think we have been hyping the issue, both in the mass media and the government. And I think it is creating a situation which is quite unhealthy. I think potentially there is a real danger to civil rights in this country. And we have a situation in which a kind of pervasive but undefined fear dominates increasingly our domestic scene, and at the same time we’re sitting here and watching a concrete war elsewhere almost like a spectacle, like a sport spectacle. And I think there is something profoundly unhealthy about it. I don’t have a remedy for it.

I may not even be putting it well, defining it precisely, but this combination troubles me. I think the government has been pumping up the terrorist business to an excessive degree. If we are really serious about it, we would greatly increase our intelligence capabilities because that’s the best protection — but not orange codes or other colored codes, periodic announcements, huge massive bureaucracy, tens of billions of dollars. We can’t protect everything anyway but we can induce so much fear in our society that something very precious is going to be lost.

JIM LEHRER: Walter. That’s quite a condemnation.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think… and there is some merit in it because, you know, all the incentives are on a bureaucracy to exaggerate a threat.


WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Because, in a sense, if you are saying that everything is okay, you know, don’t worry, and then bang something very large blows up, you look pretty bad.

JIM LEHRER: You blow up afterwards.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Right. You would blow up immediately afterwards. But on the other hand, if you keep saying there is a lot threat out there and if nothing happens, then thank god I’m doing a good job and I’m protecting you. So there is a degree to which it is going to go overboard.

But at the same time, I think the fear in our society, and the concern is about something real. Here we’ve built the strongest military machine in the history of the world, and yet in a sense the same technology that gives us that powerful military overseas also creates all kinds of vulnerabilities at home. You know, our society is so interdependent where someone like me, I ride the train, the subway to work every day in New York; it is very vulnerable. We have nuclear power plants, our lives are wrapped up in what turns out to be a very fragile set of technologies when you look at it.

And people have a lot of ability to turn that against us. So, you know, this great American military does not liberate us from the human condition of being vulnerable to our neighbors and being connected with them. It changes the playing ground, technology, but it really doesn’t change human nature. And I think more than anything, that’s what defines the world that we live in.

JIM LEHRER: So you think we have legitimate reason to be afraid.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Yes, I think there have been some exaggerations. I think as a society, we’re going to have to learn to live with this kind of threat. I mean in London, during War World II, you know, the first couple of bombing raids, there was a certain amount of panic.

After a while, it was just a blitz and you go along your daily life. Hopefully we will never reach that degree of being inured to constant attacks but it is true that we as a society will go through a learning process. I think we are going to do what Dr. Brzezinski suggests. I think we will build up our intelligence capacity. I think we will start at some point to take some of the pork out of the homeland security agency and make it more rational and work better. But we are going to be going up a learning curve here and we won’t get it right the first day.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. We’ll keep talking about this. Thank you very much for being with us all night.