Anti-terrorism officials ask how safe is too safe
The folly of U.S. terrorism countermeasures—and their peculiar bias against foreign instigators, even though domestic terrorism looms larger by far—makes a mockery of our national anthem. “Land of the free and home of the brave” indeed.
The threat of terrorism forces us to make a choice,” explain the helpful folks at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on their Web site. “We can be afraid, or we can be ready.” Get used to being afraid, then, because ready—four and a half years after 9/11—is something the United States is not.
Illinois’ Democratic U.S. senators, Richard Durbin and Barack Obama, have of late questioned the sorry state of terrorism preparedness at the nation’s ports and nuclear power plants—complaints that might be dismissed as partisan rants were it not for the fact that Republican editors and military experts and academics have been saying the same things for years. When it comes to the protection of rail yards, chemical plants, airports—each crucial in Illinois—there is no plan, and not nearly enough money. Osama bin Laden is still at large and the anthrax attack is still unsolved. And the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina proved that U.S. citizens have as much to fear from their own incompetent or indifferent officials as from terrorists.
Most of the criticism about terrorism preparedness is rightly aimed at the White House, but Congress is as much at fault, not only for failing to hold George W Bush’s administration to a higher standard of performance, but for making the problem worse. Resorting to the frank speech that only a retired politician dare use, former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson joined other members of the national 9/11 Commission in damning Congress for allocating billions in domestic security money on the basis of politics rather than risk. “Why aren’t our tax dollars being spent to protect our lives?” asked Thompson. “What’s the rationale? What’s the excuse? There is no excuse.”
What is the prudent citizen to do who has concluded that the only thing we have to fear is government itself’? According to the democratic gospel, the only protection against that threat is alert citizenship. Bruce Schneier, in his widely praised 2003 book, Beyond Fear, urges ordinary citizens to do what citizens of all democracies are supposed to do: educate themselves about complex public issues, demand sensible and informed decisions about the allocation of resources from elected leaders and government bureaucrats, and hold accountable those who fail to make good on their promises. As Thompson said upon release of the 9/11 Commission report, “The American people ought to demand answers.”
Alas, fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens is another thing the American people seem not quite ready to do. The manifold failures of preparedness by the feds were well known by 2004. Yet anti-terrorism as a program—as opposed to anti-terrorism as a political pose—hardly figured in the election of that year. (The conduct of a war was important in that presidential race--the war in question was Vietnam.) Bush was re-elected with a respectable majority of the popular vote, and the dithering of congressional incumbents did not prevent most from being sent back to Washington.
The sour stew of terrorism politics has lots of ingredients, including our national habit of forgetfulness, our capacity for distraction and our plain ignorance about complicated public issues. Some people won’t think about it and some don’t want to think about it, but it’s probably fair to say that most just don’t know how to think about it. The failure of Bush and his minions is not that they spend too little on what matters and too much on what doesn’t— this criticism can be made about most government programs —but that they are failing in a larger responsibility to teach the public what it’s facing, what the real options are and how much they might cost in dollars, convenience and, yes, freedom.
Of course, it may be that a lot of people are getting the kind of anti-terrorism preparedness they want. “If you went to the doctor because you had a badly damaged leg, she wouldn’t pretend that she could return your leg to its undamaged state if she couldn’t,” writes Schneier. “Ignoring reality is not an effective way to get healthier, or smarter, or safer, even though it might temporarily make you feel better.”
Ah, but temporarily feeling better is about all most Americans demand from their lawmakers and public employees. They are no more willing to face the reality of terrorism than they are to face a shortfall in the Social Security fund or the national dependence on oil or the poor quality of the schools. Such voters want solutions that are easy and cheap, or at least appear to be easy and cheap, and usually punish at the polls any politician who refuses to pretend. As a result, priorities are set not according to rational assessments of relative risks but by the often evanescent priorities of an inattentive and uninformed public that overstates the exotic and the unseen. The result is overspending on the danger dujour, while threats that affect more people are all but ignored.
A lot of people who might have had things to say about the war against terror did not say them out of a belief that questioning the conduct of a war is impolitic if not unpatriotic. That notion is one of the more dubious legacies of our Mr. Lincoln. His leadership as commander in chief certainly was an issue, indeed the issue in the election of 1864, and it was during that campaign that Lincoln famously warned voters of the dangers of switching horses midstream. But that’s just what voters should do if the horse is drowning.
Then, too, it may be that recent elections failed as referendums on preparedness not because people thought terrorism preparedness was too important for candidates to talk about, but because they thought it was not nearly important enough. Illinois may be at war, but almost no one acts like it. Most Illinoisans are sensible enough to know that the maniac they need to worry about is not the gent with a beard who’s mumbling in a strange accent in the next airplane seat but the driver of the SUV in the next lane. Anti-terrorism may be one of the most important of the national government’s responsibilities, in other words, but not many seem to think it is the most urgent.
Members of the Bush Administration may be lousy anti-terrorism planners, but they are accomplished pols whose instincts for partisan advantage are keen. The only reason they would dare to make preparedness a low priority was if preparedness is a low priority for a substantial chunk of the voting public they cater to. There are people, and sizable numbers, who will not rest easy until there is a sky marshal aboard every plane. (A policy that would take more marshals than the FBI has agents.) But such worriers are the lunatic fringe of homeland security politics. The sensible middle, which is where most Illinoisans are most comfortable, expects less.
This sounds like dereliction, or denial, on the part of the public. But might there be wisdom in the people’s indifference? Back in 2002, journalist David Carr was one of those who challenged not only the feasibility of making “the homeland” terrorism-proof but also the wisdom of it.
As Carr noted in The Atlantic Monthly, making the ports or the power plants or the subway stations absolutely impervious to attack would not prevent attacks, merely force a shift to more vulnerable targets. It is true, as one downstate sheriff told Illinois Issues in 2002, terrorists could strike anywhere. Yes, they could—but they are highly unlikely to. A grain elevator is not exactly a Twin Towers in symbolic value, and anyone wishing to inflict maximum civilian casualties will not head for a town whose mass transit system consists of school buses. “Doing nothing to deter such events would be foolish,” insisted Carr “but doing everything possible would be more foolish still.”
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter whether public money is spent on preparedness, or how much. In fact, it matters more. The less that is spent, the more important it becomes that what is spent is spent sensibly to achieve maximum protections against the most likely threats to targets of greatest potential importance. The real indictment of the federal effort to date is not that it hasn’t protected every place against every threat—that would be impossible even if it were affordable—but that so much of what has been done has been done incompetently or cynically.
People who think about such things (which does not include presidential speech writers) have argued from the start that fighting terrorism is not like a war—a real war anyway. Al Qaeda resembles even an unconventional military force less than it resembles a criminal gang like the Mafia. An even better comparison may be narco-terrorists, an enemy much like Al Qaeda in organization and methods, and one that to date has done much more damage to the nation, if less telegenically. The United States declared war on the drug gangs in the 1 970s, with now-familiar over-reliance on military means and similarly simplistic assumptions about the nature of the problem and the enemy. It has had results that may prove to be sadly similar too, since after three decades and billions spent to eradicate them, there are more drugs of higher potency on the nation’s streets than ever.
The analogy with criminal gangs holds in another way. Ultimately, the effort against terrorism promises to be no more—and no less—costly and intrusive than the steps our society has learned to take against ordinary crime. Everyone has melded everyday precautions into their daily routines, into judgments about where and how to move around in the world, about where to live. We have learned to accept the spending of billions on cops and alarms and insurance and jails and locks. Much of that spending is unwise, but it has purchased a tolerable status quo. Even better, crime has taught everyone the lesson that we have yet to learn about terrorism, which is that it will happen, that some losses are inevitable—and that a society that was free of risks also would be a society most of us would not want to live in. □