In October 1936, during the Spanish civil war, the fascist General Emilio Mola Vidal, commanding four columns marching on Madrid, was asked by foreign journalists which of the columns would take the capital. According to historian Hugh Thomas, Mola responded that it would be the "fifth column," a cadre of secret Nationalist supporters already in the city. And that is where the term originated.
Does the United States house a fifth column? Not exactly in the way the Spanish Republic did. But if our intelligence agencies are to be believed, we probably do house more people who wish to kill us. They may (or may not) be small in number, but if they are deft--and the butchers of September 11 certainly were--then they need not be numerous. And these killers are not randomly distributed throughout the population. They are disproportionately located in certain religious and ethnic communities. And therein lies the dilemma.
Writing in Slate
Obviously not, and this is the conclusion of even those Americans most sensitive to racial profiling's dangers. According to a Gallup Poll, as reported in The Boston Globe, 71 percent of black respondents said they favor requiring Arabs to submit to more intensive airport security checks than others. Whites, Hispanics, and Asians feel the same, their different political experiences and inclinations overwhelmed by a common surge of vulnerability and national purpose. (Sixty-four percent of African Americans also endorsed special ID cards for Arabs--a very ugly idea, and one that over time will almost certainly disappear from public consideration.) Everybody is threatened by militant Islam, and that threat has palpably brought people together in a way that must mystify the ideologues of cultural separatism. Decades ago the phenomenon of hyphenated Americans strained civic patriotism. But as New York mourned, every hyphenation served as an enriching additive, even--or perhaps especially--that most recent and fraught hyphenation: African American. Since the attacks, the racial antipathies that lurked in our big cities have been transcended. I saw in New York's Union Square a strapping, young black man and a beefy Irish cop tenderly but firmly hugging each other for several long minutes, and crying. These are the wages of our collective pain, and they will last.
So, for the first time in a long while, the questions of acceptance, resentment, and belonging that vex America are not questions between blacks and whites. They stem instead from that seemingly happier and easier American narrative: voluntary immigration to our shores--in particular, immigration from those places now besieged by fundamentalist Islam. The governments of the Arab world have been surprisingly effective and unsurprisingly brutal in their attacks on their religious zealots, and that has forced many of the people who deeply hate America to flee here for survival. As I wrote in an editorial after the first World Trade Center attack eight years ago:
There are many aggrieved people in the world, and millions of these aspire to become Americans. The early Arab migration was of this sort. Mostly Christian but not all, it brought to these shores people fleeing famine and, as the Ottoman Empire tottered and finally collapsed, others fleeing perfervid faith and perfervid nationalisms. Like other newcomers, these Arab arrivals had bought themselves a psychological one-way ticket to America, putting the past behind them and making, more or less, a clean break with the old world. Another wave came in the late '60's and after, impelled to move by the evaporating myths of the Nasserist state and Arab socialism. Even if they nostalgically clung to one myth or another of Middle Eastern politics, they quickly made themselves and their children belong here.
But this cannot be said about many in the last large contingent of Arab immigrants, not a few of them illegals. They also were fleeing from the fires of their world. But the fires were ones they had helped set. Unlike their predecessors, they carried the wars in their hearts with them. Now, a few of them have brought these wars to American streets. Surely, terror brings disgust and fear to the ordinary Arab immigrant. Yet one cannot deny that there is also an Arab culture in Brooklyn and Jersey City and Detroit off which the criminals feed and which gets a grim thrill from them.
Ours is not a country with which they identify or whose values they share. The American flag has been a flag of convenience for them, the flag of a patsy country that lets them in without scrutiny, lets them work, go to school, organize, harangue, hate, and, then, foolishly tries to fit them into some fanciful mosaic of gorgeous diversity.
The United States has admitted many more such people since that editorial was written, in a process that can charitably be called random. A long and meticulous article by Thomas Farragher and Alice Dembner in last Sunday's Boston Globe details the myriad ways in which America's rules of entry are evaded or simply ignored. The Immigration and Naturalization Service uses computers no hardworking college freshman would tolerate. Visa applications at the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia (from where many of last month's terrorists hail) are processed not by Americans, but by Pakistanis, Sudanese, and Somalis. Our visa waiver program is a leaking sieve. Scrupulous observers estimate that there are as many as 5,000 actual or potential terror operatives in Britain today, and probably more in Germany. It's anybody's guess how many reside in the United States.
Here is one Globe narrative out of many: "In 1996, Palestinian Lafi Khalil received a visa from the US consul in Israel that entitled him to spend up to 29 days traveling through the United States en route to Ecuador, although he neither fully completed his application nor showed proof of a ticket to Ecuador. When he arrived at JFK Airport ... an immigration inspector mistakenly granted him a six-month stay under a tourist visa. Nearly eight months later, Khalil was arrested in New York City and charged with planning to bomb the subway system. He later was convicted of carrying a fake immigration card."
The Clinton administration paid zero attention to this problem. And neither has its successor. In fact, the Bushies have made it worse. Just this summer the administration admitted into the country the mufti of Jerusalem, Sheik Ikrema Sabri, a prominent enthusiast for Islamic terror whose bloodcurdling sermons inspire the faithful on Fridays. President Bush also suggested, reasonably, an amnesty for illegal Mexican immigrants. But had Mohammed Atta and his comrades not perpetrated their mass cremations, congressional Democrats might well have expanded that idea to include illegal aliens from all over the world, and this country could have been permanently and legally saddled with an even larger cohort of potential killers.
Now, much too late, America will tighten its immigration procedures. And that tightening will probably not affect immigrants from every country equally, nor should it. A traveler, no less a potential immigrant, with a passport from Yemen and visas from Lebanon and Qatar should receive greater scrutiny--not harassment, but careful scrutiny--than a traveler with a passport from Chile and a visa from Spain. That is not racism; it is prudence--an objective assessment of where the threat resides. To do otherwise after September 11 would constitute extraordinary negligence.
But the problem is too broad and too subtle to be solved even by much more competent immigration authorities. Even if Americans, rather than Somalis, interviewed visa seekers in Riyadh, would they really be able to determine who is a terrorist in his heart? And what about that much larger immigrant contingent that will commit no crime, whose hatred for the United States is mostly rhetorical. They may not directly endanger us, but their presence does sap our civic spirit. And they buoy the few who do the murdering; they are the sea in which the killer fish swim. Most Arab- and Muslim-Americans, to be sure, do not share such hatred. But Arab communities all across the country are not immune from the currents swirling in the lands of their birth. (We have known for years, for instance, that one university in south Florida was once a virtual command post for radical Islam in the United States.) And those lands are--as the left has been so quick to remind us--filled with hatred of America and rationalizations of violence against it and its friends. And those rationalizations are also heard in the United States, from some of Arab America's most prominent leaders.
It is deeply depressing, for instance, that when the president traveled to the Massachusetts Avenue Islamic Center in Washington last week, he could not find a group of prominent Muslims to accompany him who were not in some way compromised. Bush stood beside Nihad Awan, a longtime apologist for Islamic terrorism. One of the Muslim leaders the president invited to the White House on September 26 was Salam Al-Marayati, who had already suggested that Israel was behind the September 11 bloodletting. (He had previously defended the 1983 bombing of the Beirut Marine barracks, which took 241 American lives, as "a military operation.") Another guest, Muzammil Siddiqi of the Islamic Society of North America, last year held the United States responsible for "feeding the Israeli war machinery" and warned that "the wrath of God will come." Also present was Omar Ahmed of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is believed to have close ties to American front groups for Middle Eastern terror cells. The Bushies invited Hamza Yusuf to attend the prayer service at the White House. But on September 9 Yusuf had prophesied that a great disaster would soon fall upon the United States because of its mistreatment of Arabs around the world (how did he know?). In the same speech Yusuf asserted that Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who incited the first World Trade Center attack, was "unjustly tried." This is not to say that the White House should not have reached out to American Muslims in the wake of the attacks. Of course it should have. But not to men who subtly and not so subtly justify the horror. It does say something that these were the best the Bushies could muster. And it is not only the American government's responsibility to find such leaders. It is Muslim America's responsibility to produce them.
Of course, america must upgrade its security systems. No city in the country has prepared its residents for a chemical or biological attack. Our public health service is unprepared. And there is hardly a public space in America--museums, libraries, athletic stadiums, universities, dance clubs, concert halls, theatres--that has adequate security in place. There has been a lot of talk in recent days about air marshals on domestic flights. But what about flights from abroad? Who will guarantee the reliability of their crews? We have already experienced Egypt Air 990, whose pilot--according to a leaked but curiously never officially released FAA report--appears to have brought down his craft with 217 aboard. (Which, of course, the media suggested couldn't have happened since Islam forbids suicide.) It takes tremendous vigilance to prevent a terrorist from boarding a plane. A friend of mine once bought an El Al phony student ticket from Rome to Tel Aviv. When he came to Fiumicino Airport, he was questioned by an El Al staffer who assesses passenger risk. "Oh, you're a student. What do you study?" My friend said he studied architecture. "In what year was Palladio born?" My friend missed his plane. Does anyone imagine that the employees of other Middle Eastern airlines are doing anything remotely like that?
The grim truth is that we will have great trouble combating the war that the terrorist international has now brought to our shores. We do not really know who these people are. We do not know what they really want. Their demands are so abstract and so metaphorical that almost no one--thank God--has proposed negotiations with them. And most important, we do not know what frightens them. They have merged themselves with our quotidian world.
In an interview with The New York Times published on October 3, Secretary of State Powell admitted that the U.S. government received--many weeks before September 11--reliable but unspecified advance warning of the forthcoming catastrophe. Notwithstanding these alerts, the terrorists still penetrated our borders. Others already inside the country continued their flying lessons. Others obtained licenses for transporting hazardous materials. All those who tried made it through airport security. The government did not even block the accounts of known terrorist agents until nearly two weeks after the atrocity. Our government was both complacent and inept. The struggle at home will be as difficult as the struggle in the mountains of Afghanistan. And no less important.
By Martin Peretz