Is the Homeland Security Administration up to dealing with terrorism? Does the Katrina response shed any light on that question?
First, let us see if a natural disaster is really related to terrorism. There are similarities – demolished buildings, casualties, ruined property. But there are important differences.
A terrorist is intelligent. He picks targets according to a goal. He learns from his mistakes and builds on his successes.
A terrorist has morale, which improves when his target rolls over and takes it, and improves greatly when his target offers concessions in hopes of making the terrorist stop, and goes right in the toilet when his target forces him to flee for his life, hide in caves, and keep moving.
A terrorist can be killed. Some potential terrorists can even be deterred. A terrorist who is not killed can strike again if he is left unmolested.
A hurricane, on the other hand, is a big, dumb, mass of rotating air that goes where the wind pushes it. It doesn’t target anything. It can’t be diverted, deterred, or destroyed. It does its damage and eventually dissipates, never to be seen again. Other hurricanes form according to the blind laws of nature, completely outside of our control, and follow their unalterable course to a random spot of our coastline.
Let us suppose for a minute that the damage done by Katrina was instead the work of a terrorist group. This terrorist group would have to somehow not only breach the levees, but flatten structures and close bridges in surrounding parishes and down the coastline all the way to Mobile, demolish everything within a few miles of the Mississippi coastline, cut off power to 90% of Mississippi, and leave tens of thousands of survivors in New Orleans cut off from their supply lines.
In that case, rescue and recovery would still be of secondary importance. Secondary to the task of preventing the terrorists from doing it again. Which they will do, purposely targeting population centers or vital infrastructure and improving upon their methods, if we don’t act, and which we are capable of preventing them from doing. Such prevention involves the sort of activity that the Feds have been up to for four years now – killing terrorists where they live, and keeping surviving terrorists as busy as possible reacting to us rather than plotting attacks against us. But none of that is of much use in a natural disaster response.
The next hurricane will follow the path that the forces of nature ordain for it regardless of what we do or don’t do. We can’t diminsh its power by attacking it or encourage it by misguided attempts at appeasement, and it can’t learn from experience or target anything. Since our activities have no impact on future storms, the sole remaining priority is rescue and recovery. Which was supplied by the Feds with the speed and effectiveness promised.
So while there’s undoubtedly lessons to learn in the Katrina response, it does not tend to indicate that our counterterrorism activity or preparation is failing in any way. The fact that all the world’s terrorists missed four years of opportunity to breach those levees, which were not exactly a state secret, tends to indicate that our counterterrorism activity is working.