Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood Randall: September 11, 2002 — One Year Later
By Christine VanDeVelde Luskin, writer and Bing alumni parent
In the early morning of September 11, 2001, at her home in the East Bay, Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall was readying her two sons for their first day at Bing Nursery School when she turned on the TV to check on the traffic on the Dumbarton Bridge and saw what was happening in the world — three airliners had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and another had crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside.
That morning every parent on the West Coast debated whether or not to send their children to school. No one knew what was happening. But, like most parents, Sherwood-Randall went ahead. She drove across the Dumbarton Bridge to Bing, where, she noted, the leadership of the school and its teachers exhibited an extraordinary presence of mind so that “the terrible things happening in the grown-up world would not poison the innocence and wonder of a first day of school for so many little children.”
On September 11, 2002, exactly one year later, Dr. Sherwood-Randall, a Bing parent and Senior Research Scholar at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, spoke to the Bing community about the impact of 9/11 on national security and on Americans’ lives.
The past year, she noted, had been an eye-opening one for many Americans. With the end of the Cold War more than a decade ago, most believed there was no longer any need to worry about the world beyond our shores. With the United States the world’s sole remaining superpower, there were no real dangers to our security on the scale that had been posed by the former Soviet Union. For most of the 1990s, the foreign policy problems the United States concerned itself with were of no great consequence to Americans at home. The travails of Haiti or Rwanda or Bosnia were awful from a humanitarian point of view, but they did not threaten our very way of life.
In a sense, as terrible as it sounds, said Sherwood-Randall, what happened a year ago was a wake-up call for America. One of the hardest things in this new, uncertain time is the feeling of helplessness. But, she asked, is there anything that we can do, both individually and collectively, to make our world safer and more secure? Can we keep nuclear and biological weapons out of the hands of terrorists? And, if something terrible does happen, how do we minimize the consequences?
The single greatest threat to Americans today, she said, lies in the possibility that nuclear weapons would be used against us by terrorists. It’s hard to build nuclear weapons from scratch, but getting one from a country that already has them and doesn’t have an entirely secure system in place for keeping track of them, is less daunting.
Countries that have nuclear weapons, or have the potential to develop them, represent continuing challenges. In the case of Russia, which still has 25,000 nuclear weapons, the government has been generally cooperative, but there are a lot of hungry scientists and soldiers, and we know the Iranians and the Iraqis and al-Qaeda have been looking for opportunities to buy either the weapons or the technology or the scientists who can help them build nuclear weapons.
But progress can be made. At the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union collapsed, four new nuclear states emerged: Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus. Three of these four countries — Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus — were all persuaded to give up their nuclear weapons within five years of their independence through a major American initiative, and nearly 5,000 nuclear warheads were dismantled.
But a new phase of this cooperative activity urgently needs to be undertaken, to work with countries that have nuclear weapons, to address their remaining arsenals, to build a “global coalition against catastrophic terrorism.” This could be built on the coalition that has been forged to fight al-Qaeda and it would concentrate on keeping nuclear materials and their science out of the hands of terrorists. Fundamentally, this kind of work depends extremely heavily on international cooperation.
Prevention also requires that the United States military have the capability to deal with the new kinds of threats the country is facing. Sherwood-Randall believes decisive steps must be taken now to enhance military capabilities. She said that one of the very best ways to prevent attacks is to use the military as a deterrent, to use it to persuade people not to attack because they know the consequences will be dire for them. This strengthens United States diplomacy and allows us to compel behavior from adversaries without actually having to fight. In addition, much greater intelligence about the kinds of threats that we now face is required, because these threats are very different from the classic threats for which we’ve prepared to fight in the past.
Our general lack of preparedness is particularly true with respect to a new category of danger: the possibility of the use of biological weapons. The reality is that this threat is not very responsive to prevention. Unlike nuclear weapons, which offer significant opportunities for prevention, the options for prevention of biological agents are very limited. The material and the technology and the knowledge are already widely distributed, and with the genomics revolution, more is happening every day. Deterrence doesn’t work in this context because there may not be a state against whom we can respond, and it will be extremely hard to identify perpetrators, in any case.
A more fruitful course of action, said Sherwood-Randall, involves improvements in domestic and international public health by significantly strengthening our event-monitoring capabilities so that outbreaks are recognized early and health care professionals know how to treat those outbreaks. A multi-layered, multinational network is needed so that information can be conveyed in real time across cities, states, and continents. Internationally, a much greater capacity for global public health monitoring is required to identify new and unfamiliar diseases and to be prepared to respond, which means much more work also needs to be done to develop both vaccines and antidotes. Domestically, our own public health system has been severely under-funded traditionally, and this needs to change, in order to build the necessary network of monitoring and response.
Preparation is something in which all Americans have a role. To adequately organize to face all these new threats, an effort will be required at federal, state, and local levels and in each and every home. The problem of homeland security has existed for many years — there are overlapping jurisdictions and competing entities. But, while defense traditionally has been a federal responsibility, much of what needs to be done now requires local governments to be on the front line of the national strategy, because they will most often be the first responders in a crisis. This means that people who have not had anything to do with national security issues are thrust into this role — doctors, police officers, even school teachers.
Catastrophic terrorism is a probability. Sherwood-Randall thinks it is only a matter of time and that is why she thinks this work is urgently important. If we’re very effective in our efforts, the likelihood goes down. September 11 was a wakeup call but maybe one that will be useful if we can really marshall our resources to prepare for such terrorism and, whenever possible, prevent it.
We are in a new world. The paradigm that organized and defined our role in the world has been lost. Before the Second World War, this country was ambivalent about being engaged on a continuous basis in the world. Our founding fathers had advised us against entangling alliances, and largely what we did was go out and do things that needed to get done and then we’d come home and mind our own business. Then we realized that the Cold War was something we’d have to fight for the longer term, we had to mobilize resources to do it, and stay the course.
What we are seeing and feeling now is the discomfort of not having a new paradigm, explained Sherwood-Randall. Terrorism is just one element of a new picture that is taking shape, in which there are different dangers. And some of the norms that we have come to accept for human behavior seem to have disappeared — for example, the expectation that no one would fly a plane into a building and be cheered by his people for doing it. We are in a different era, and that’s scary. We can’t anticipate things, and, for national security specialists, it’s incredibly humbling, because they have to start from scratch.
But what can each of us do at home, as individuals? Sherwood-Randall says that the first thing to do is live our lives, and not be frightened or inhibited about doing the things that make our country great.
Second, be informed citizens. Learn about the world, participate in the debate about America’s role in it, support prevention and preparedness as important public policy goals. Read the newspaper. Read about these places in the world we need to understand better. Read about policy debates. Watch C-Span at night, instead of Entertainment Tonight. And then — and this is absolutely crucial and so important — vote! Be engaged in the process of choosing your leaders so we’ll have leaders who represent our views.
Go to public forums. Write letters to your congressman about things you care about, and ask for answers. An informed citizenry really matters.
Third, help our children cope. Be a role model in crisis. Panic will terrify children, and set a negative example as they deal with their own crises in their own lives. Assure them that everything that can be done will be done to protect them and keep them safe. Don’t hide too much from them because they can detect an adult’s anxiety and become distrustful and suspicious, but don’t overload them with information they can’t process. Bing teacher Jane Farish has written an excellent pamphlet on this — When Disaster Strikes: Helping Young Children Cope. And, finally, take control by making emergency plans. Talk with your children about what to do in an emergency. Even the youngest child can know about dialing 911 and communicating their address.
How can parents cope? With the love of family, being a member of a supportive community, exercise, learning more about potential threats and understanding what we can do about it. If that’s not enough, Sherwood-Randall recommends The September 11 Syndrome: Seven Steps to Getting a Grip in Uncertain Times by psychologist Dr. Harriet Braiker, a very practical plan for dealing with “anxious days and sleepless nights.”
The world today is a scary place, says Sherwood-Randall, but Americans are not helpless and shouldn’t feel hopeless about it. There is much that can be done to diminish the dangers and there is the responsibility to do so, for the best reason of all: to ensure children’s futures.
At Stanford, Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall is working on developing innovative policy solutions to national security problems and to inspire young people to pursue public policy careers. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia from 1994-1996 and co-founded the Strength-ening Democratic Institutions Project at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.