Over the past three years, the commissioners and staff of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century concluded that the most serious threat to this nation is the likelihood that Americans would die on their own soil -- from a terrorist attack -- likely in large numbers. They also concluded and testified before Congress that it may, sadly, take a disaster to awaken the country to the fact that the security environment has changed, and that the way we must respond to it must change as well. Now the disaster has struck, and while we may feel at the moment as though we are in a trance, we are, in fact, awakening.
The commission's mandate was to examine the suitability of the present governmental structure to deal with the threats and opportunities of the 21st century. It concluded that major changes were needed: in structure and processes of national security, in our intelligence methods, investments and priorities, in executive-legislative coordination and more. But the commissioners understood something more important: that, as the final report said, "homeland security is not peripheral to U.S. national security strategy, but central to it." Our commissioners feared that mass-casualty attacks at home would "jeopardize not only American lives, but U.S. foreign policy writ large." Such an event could "undermine support for U.S. international leadership and for many of our personal freedoms as well. Indeed, the abrupt undermining of U.S. power and prestige is the worst thing that could happen to the structure of global peace in the next quarter century and nothing is more likely to produce it than devastating attacks on American soil."
We must not let that happen. While we now stand at what is certainly one of the saddest moments in American history, it is also one of the most dangerous. For it has the potential of changing what we do and who we are. These attacks must not lead us to abandon our principles, our national objectives or the leadership role that no other nation can now serve. We must not do the terrorists' work for them.
For the moment we must continue exactly what we're doing: trying to save as many lives as possible and protect the nation from further harm. But as the smoke clears and the dust settles, there will be a tendency on the part of some to disengage. Others will call for striking out in revenge. And the pressure will be high to do so quickly, perhaps before we can be certain just who the perpetrators were. Both responses would be disastrous. The world will not function as it now does without engagement of the United States, nor can we function without engagement with others. Our aim must be to identify with certainty the source of these attacks and all those who assisted them and then to respond with measured and deadly resolve. Not to respond would be unthinkable: It would diminish and demean American leadership and would surely invite further attacks. But to react excessively or inaccurately would put us on the same moral footing as the cowards who perpetrated yesterday's attack.
This country must continue to function as we did before, to the full measure of our domestic and foreign activities. Our president must convey to the American people that there is an answer to this kind of plague and that we will certainly find and apply it. It incorporates enhanced diplomacy and refined military tools for the requirements of 21st century security. It will take time, but we will prevail.
Americans must now accept the sober realization that while some people hate us for what we do, others hate us for who we are. This nation symbolizes freedom, strength, tolerance and democratic principles dedicated to both liberty and peace. To the tyrants, the despots, the closed societies, there are no alterations to our policies, no gestures we can make, no words we can say that will convince those determined to continue their hate. But for much of the rest of the world, our engagement and influence cannot be replaced. In short, we must stay the course of American involvement, for the right reasons, throughout the world.
Those who carried out yesterday's attacks believe they are at war with us. We have no choice now but to treat those threats accordingly and to address our serious national vulnerabilities.
The president has assigned the task of reviewing homeland security to the vice president. That review is to be completed by October. Our first priority of national security strategy, and the one for which we are least prepared, must be homeland security. The nation has much capability at the federal, state and local level, but it is ill organized, unevenly trained and equipped and, most important, not led by a single individual vested with responsibility, authority or resources. Now that we're awake, these shortfalls can be overcome quickly.
Charles Boyd, a retired Air Force general, is the Senior Vice President and Washington Director of the Council on Foreign Relations, and was executive director of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century.