Connecting the dots of America’s well-being

February 5, 2010

by Pat Ryan

“Certain” was certainly an unambiguous answer to a question, about the likelihood the United States would be attacked in the next six months, put to Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair in testimony before the U.S. Senate this week. “Al Qaeda,” he said of the group that killed over 3000 Americans on 9/11, “maintains its intent to attack the homeland – preferably with a large-scale operation that would cause mass casualties, harm the U.S. economy, or both.”

Message delivered? Well maybe not. To be sure, it was carried in newspaper stories and on cable news broadcasts but like most weighty issues of our day it was drowned out by what I call “Stupid Noise in the News.” Full disclosure here, my wife, my ultimate editor, says I shouldn’t call it “stupid news” because it might offend people who have emotional connections to stories about Taylor Swift’s Grammy performance, Sarah Palin being offended by Rahm Emanuel’s vocabulary, negotiations about the surrender of Michael Jackson’s doctor, or what is “in” or “out” of bounds for Superbowl commercials.

So I guess the best we can say is that the message about an impending “large-scale attack” was sent, not necessarily received. There were other messages in the testimony by Blair alongside CIA Director Leon Panetta and FBI Director Robert Mueller, the annual catalog of threats to Americans and American interests. Among the more significant are: the continuing potential for global economic collapse; the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs; international criminal cartels; and the emerging cyber threat to America’s computers and infrastructure.

There you have it. Terrorists who have a track record of killing Americans will try to kill you and, or cripple your already debilitated economy between now and July. Of that you can be certain. That’s the judgment of those who have connected the dots – a phrase that came of age after the 9/11 attacks. Lessons learned inquiries concluded that all the facts were on the table but policymakers failed to make sense of them. One could argue there were too many dots on the table to judge the credibility of the threat, much less the target or timing. But that’s a discussion for another column.

As of Tuesday, however, you have been warned. Did you get it? While the venue or the timing is not known, at least by the public, you can be sure that you’re in the crosshairs. What you don’t know is the consequences of our fellow Americans’ failure to figure out how to connect the dots. How do you discern what is important to you, your family and your future, from what is not. As a citizen with as much responsibility for our country’s course as any other citizen have you connected the dots?

It would be humorous, if it were not so dangerous, to ponder what passes for important issues of the day to most of American society. While a national security tornado approaches the county line our political parties are arguing over what color to paint the living room. It may be more important than ever for our country – for our own individual interests – to present a unified voice and image to a very troubled world, but we’re stuck squabbling among ourselves. Clearly there are important domestic questions that cannot be left unattended. But even these issues are not approached in a reasonable way. “Stupid Noise in the News” drowns out most of them and when they are discussed they fall victim to disingenuous political posturing, personal attacks on opponents and exaggerated claims that mask honest debate.

A change in the tone of national debates and a reversal of apparent indifference or ignorance of looming threats to our future – security, economic, or otherwise – will not solve all, perhaps not any, of the problems America faces. But the first step is awareness.

I was recently invited to speak to a dozen or so churchwomen who had formed a discussion group on world affairs. After reviewing the challenges to U.S. foreign policy and how many of them were not being adequately addressed I was asked what could any of us do to get someone to do something to fix the problems. The answer I had was to congratulate them that they had taken the first step – to make themselves aware that there was a problem. If we don’t hear the siren signaling the tornado at the county line because we’re too busy shouting at each other then it won’t matter who wins the fight over painting the house. Of that you can be certain.

Pat Ryan is a retired sailor and writer. He lives in Cookeville, Tennessee.

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