It could have been worse. Next time it may be worse.

Even for those of us who deal in words, there are none sufficient to express the soul-wrenching, gut-twisting horror of the terroristic acts of Sept. 11. But the events of that week demonstrated all too dramatically and sickeningly just how vulnerable we are.

The hell of it is that, no matter how much we try, how many billions of dollars and how much manpower we commit to defensive measures, creative terrorists — to whom life is valueless — will find ways to wreak havoc. We have only to look at heavily militarized Israel, with some of the best offensive and defensive forces in the world, to see the difficulty of providing 24/7 security for a country as large as ours.

America-haters worldwide have had the bar raised to a new high by the incredible success of the attacks on New York and Washington. Emboldened by the worldwide notoriety accrued from these depraved acts, it is not unlikely that in some dark corner of the world plans are already being hatched for another round — just waiting for the right time, the right place. For those who think nothing of blowing themselves to bits for their cause, how much of a deterrent is the threat of retribution by the U.S.?

How could it be worse? Here in the Mid-South, a thousand miles away from the 9/11 terrorism, we got a glimpse of what could happen when long lines formed at every gasoline station, with numerous reports of price gouging, and even some fisticuffs between those in the lines. People flocked to grocery stores to stock up on food, batteries, etc., and there was reported to be a surging demand at gun shops for assault weapons and ammunition.

This, despite the fact there was no rational indication of any potential for imminent disruptions in supplies of gasoline or food, or that anyone outside of New York and Washington had any reason to fear for their lives.

Here is how it could be worse: The attacks, however destructive of life and property, were primarily symbolic and attention-getting — bringing down the World Trade Center in such a spectacular fashion to make a statement against America's economic might; hitting the Pentagon was a symbolic thumbing of noses at U.S. military might. Had one of the planes got through to the White House, the symbol to the world of political power and freedom, it would have been the ultimate feather in the terrorists' hats.

And while there will be far-reaching economic repercussions, perhaps even a full-fledged recession in an economy already on the ropes, the country's infrastructure remains intact. Planes returned to the air, trucks and trains kept running, and the fuel/food/commerce supply chain experienced only brief interruptions. The lights stayed on, the phones kept working, the Internet was intact, ATMs still spit out money, and TV/radio networks kept us informed minute by minute of the unfolding tragedies.

But consider a scenario of a coordinated series of attacks on the nation's electrical grid, its telecommunications network, its computer networks, and its transportation system (key bridges, key airports, key ports), and you have a recipe for internal hardships that boggles the mind. Ports in the Los Angeles area alone handle some 35 percent of all cargo coming into the U.S.; putting them and a few others out of commission would have enormous repercussions. An estimated one-third of world cargo trade flows through North America airports. Destroyed ports and runways would take many months and billions of dollars to replace.

Imagine the impact all this would have on U.S. agriculture and our ability to feed ourselves, on U. S. commerce and our ability to provide all the goods and services to which we are accustomed.

Last week's attacks were characterized by Sen. Joe Biden as “a struggle between civilization and barbarity.”

Our nation's challenge will be not only to try and find ways to thwart terrorism, but particularly to protect our vital infrastructure, the loss of which would imperil our very civilization.

hbrandon@primediabusiness.com