Annus horriblus is Latin for “horrible year,” yet even that phrase fails to encompass what's happened during the past 12 months. The terrorist attacks just one year ago marked the beginning of a series of life-shaking, if not shattering, events both inside and outside the transportation industry.
For starters, there is the cold realization that our enemies are everywhere and nowhere — fanatics living in Afghanistan caves one minute move into American suburbs the next armed with deadly plans. They've learned to turn our transportation networks against us, using planes on Sept. 11, but perhaps tractor-trailers in the future. The theft of a truckload of cyanide near the Mexican border this year raised heart rates across the country pretty fast, reminding us how easily trucks could be turned into weapons.
Although these 21st-century fanatics are almost invisible, they possess the ability to smuggle biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons into our homeland. They can create a level of destruction and death that took Japanese and Nazi dictators decades to accomplish, and only after co-opting millions of their countrymen to believe in their brand of evil and form armies to carry it into the world. Now just a handful of terrorists — armed with cash, box cutters, and the willingness to die — can murder thousands. If they get their hands on dirty bomb technology or Anthrax, however, they could end up killing millions.
Decades of neglect have opened up giant holes in our transportation channels. The Customs Service can only check 1% to 2% of the nearly 7-million ocean freight containers entering the U.S. every year. When the southern border opens to Mexican trucks, thousands of extra vehicles will have to be checked every day, taxing already overburdened border inspectors. Over the last year, the government has raced to close gaps in airline, trucking, and port security with little success. Efforts have bogged down as politicians on both sides of the aisle posture for re-election campaigns. It's enough to make one wonder whose side the political machinery of this country is on.
Yet there is another vile issue growing in size and scope alongside the terror threat — the rot within our nation's corporate infrastructure. Companies like Enron, WorldCom, Tyco International, and Global Crossing have shown us that the so-called economic boom of the 1990s was a sham.
Between 1997 and 2001, over 1,000 public companies restated their earnings as accounting shell games came to light. So even as we try to deal with terrorists turning our transportation networks against us, we find that some of the very companies that use and maintain those networks have crooked executives at the helm.
Which leads me to wonder: Are these the people who can help the trucking industry guard itself against terrorists? The stock market has taken a nosedive in recent months as investors realized almost nothing said by corporate America could be taken at face value. Over $1.5-trillion worth of stock valuation disappeared this year, adding to $7-trillion worth of devaluation since 1999. Just when we need executives to help take the lead in developing greater transportation security measures, we may have to protect ourselves against them as well.
So here we are, fighting an unseen enemy that favors strikes against civilians, even as the basic foundations of our economy sway precariously on rampant corporate lying. We wait tensely for the next attack and wonder: If one does occur, will it involve trucks? Can our industry be in a position to prevent a truck-based attack from happening?
I hope we never have to find out.