"The task for us is difficult, but not impossible," said Tom Ridge, America's new director of homeland security.
Ridge likened his task, among other great undertakings, to John F. Kennedy's pledge following the Soviet Union's early success in space to put a man on the moon before 1970. That is an analogy worth considering.
It took the United States just eight years between Kennedy's 1961 pledge and its fulfillment in 1969. The interim saw many failures, including rockets that blew up on the launching pad or had to be destroyed when they veered off course. Some astronauts died.
We had better be prepared for failures in this period between President Bush's pledge to defeat terrorism and the goal of more effectively protecting ourselves from terrorists' evil intentions.
There are many ways to fight terrorism in addition to the ongoing military and intelligence offensives. One is for individuals to become more vigilant. In Israel, signs urge people to report suspicious packages and activities to authorities. We are beginning to do that here. While it is good for government to do more, it's essential that citizens become better informed, equipped and ready to protect ourselves.
The Second Amendment speaks of the necessity of a well-regulated militia to protect the homeland. The Founders intended for the people to be a critical line of defense against our enemies. An example of what will be required is the reaction of passengers on an American Airlines flight earlier this week. They wrestled an apparently deranged man into submission when he stormed the cockpit. We must be our brother's (and sister's) keeper.
The media can play an important role by publishing and broadcasting information about self-defense. Like those emails from friends that warn not to open certain attachments because of a virus going around, the public should be cautioned about opening letters and packages from unknown senders that might contain biological agents. We can also learn basic physical moves to thwart someone who might try to cause bodily harm.
The media needs to pay more attention to foreign news. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, most broadcast media which unfortunately has been the only source of news for too many Americans have virtually ignored news from overseas. If we are to defend ourselves, we need to know what foreigners are thinking, saying and planning. The Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington immediately exposed the triviality of our fascination with the likes of a stained intern's dress, a philandering congressman and his missing intern, who's sleeping with whom, and the clothing styles of presidential candidates.
Classrooms need to get back to teaching about America and its bedrock principles. More than information, the next generation needs to be taught what is good and right and, yes, preferable, about our way of life. We need to make Americans out of American children, not multiculturalists who accept the fiction that all systems and all beliefs are equally good. Nations and movements who seek our destruction aren't teaching their children such things. Many are brainwashing their kids about the supposed superiority of their beliefs, including the ultimate triumph of their religion. Some of their 6-year-olds are already crack shots.
President Bush says this will be a long war on terrorism. Like the space program, we have come late to homeland defense. That is not only the fault of our leaders at all levels of government and the media, who failed to warn us and who had other agendas (domestic politics and making money among them). It is also our own fault for falsely believing that evil had been largely vanquished when the Soviet Union collapsed and that making money and buying stuff mattered most.
The best homeland defense will be a good homeland offense. The weapons must not only come from without through what government does. The more powerful weapons will come from within when millions of us decide to think, act and live differently.
Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.