IN HER ATTEMPT at bipartisanship during a time of national crisis, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein recently remarked that "for now" she and her Democratic colleagues "probably will not argue" with the president about missile defense. "But eventually there will come a realization that these planes were a missile a defense shield could not defend against."
That's the new party line against missile defense: Since an antimissile shield would have been useless against the terrorists' joint attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it's obviously of no value when it comes to defending national security.
To appreciate the full absurdity of Feinstein's statement widely echoed by fellow Democrats and throughout the establishment press imagine a senator announcing, shortly after Dec. 7, 1941, that because Japan used planes to bomb Pearl Harbor, America obviously had no need for tanks.
While it's true that missile shields can't prevent hijacked commercial jetliners from crashing into buildings, that's not their purpose. For that we have counterintelligence operations, airport security and an Air Force (none of which, by the way, proved up to the task by Feinstein's logic, we must have little use for them, either). The need for missile defense is to stop rogue nations from lobbing biological, chemical or nuclear-tipped missiles in our direction an increasingly likely possibility in a rapidly destabilizing and militarizing world.
Somehow, Feinstein and others have convinced themselves that because terrorists used the hijack-and-crash method on Sept. 11, that's the only danger against which America must guard itself. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., neatly summed up this mentality when he commented that "today, our threat is not a threat of somebody launching nuclear missiles at us."
Thank God for that. If Islamic radicals had the means to unleash nuclear, chemical or biological terror on an entire American city today, the U.S. would have no means to stop them.
But it's only a short matter of time until they develop that capacity or buy it in the vast black market in weapons.
In 1997, Congress named a bipartisan commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld, then former and now current Secretary of Defense, to determine how long it would take a potential adversary to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching North America.
Its unanimous conclusions, delivered the next year, were horrific: Iran could produce an ICBM with the ability to hit targets from Philadelphia to St. Paul by 2003. In another five years, Iraq could develop similar capabilities.
Throw China into the mix with its successful espionage and lucrative armaments-export business plus the instability of the former USSR's nuclear stockpile, and the danger becomes all the more apparent. Osama bin Laden himself has made no secret of his desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
When terrorist states successfully develop functional ICBMs, they'll have the option of inflicting mass death on the American cities of their choice or holding the U.S. hostage with the mere threat.
Feinstein's reasoning is simplistic reductionism: They can get us with planes, so they have no need to get us with missiles. Does she really believe that if terrorists had access to weapons of mass destruction, they wouldn't use them? Does she think that despite their demonstrated resourcefulness, they've stopped trying to devise newer, ever more efficient ways to slaughter American civilians?
The fact that they employed more conventional means of killing on Sept. 11 only increases the possibility of a missile attack in the future. Terrorists strike at their victims' weaknesses, which, until recently, were American airports. Due to their own success, commandeering airplanes has now become considerably more difficult, increasing all the more their need to seek out new vulnerabilities like America's complete lack of antimissile protection.
During the Cold War, "Mutual Assured Destruction" was sufficient to keep the Soviets from pushing the button. That won't work with Islamic fanatics who believe that a wartime death begets the ultimate reward.
Two weeks ago, few people would have imagined assaults as brazen or well-orchestrated as those executed against New York and Washington, D.C. If there's a lesson to be learned from those tragedies, it's that neither the abilities nor the viciousness of America's enemies should be underestimated.
Prudence dictates that a country be vigilant against all possible threats. Better to build a missile-defense system and never use it than to assume arrogantly that America's enemies have exhausted their creativity then get caught off guard, again, at an even more awful cost.