America’s homeland security efforts are like a burlesque of the cold war struggle–randomly throwing money at the problem, periodically issuing dire alerts and indulging expensive versions of old-fashioned silliness. The hapless new Department of Homeland Security is spending many billions, but it is pulled this way and that because it cannot say reliably what should come first or even what the “threat” is. When anxious members of Congress ask when the DHS will complete its “comprehensive threat and vulnerability assessment” and an accompanying priority list of “essential capabilities,” the department responds, Not soon, perhaps in five years.

Meantime, officials have prepared for the worst on Sebago Lake, in Maine. Sebago supplies drinking water for Portland–imagine a deadly virus in the hands of bad people–so the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department spent some DHS money from Washington to buy a new patrol boat. The game wardens keep an eye out for suspicious characters while they also monitor the fish. Craighead County in northeastern Arkansas spent $600,000 on hazmat suits and other antiterror paraphernalia. “We’ve got 60,000 people here, a university and two hospitals, and a lot of folks coming and going,” the county’s emergency coordinator explained. “We’ve got some good targets.”

Americans are urged by their government to mobilize themselves family by family (go to www.ready.gov for instructions). Create a “shelter-in-place” with duct tape and plastic sheeting and stock an emergency kit–reminiscent of the 1950s-era backyard fallout shelters. Make a family-readiness plan, just in case. If bioterrorism occurs, turn off the air conditioning. If you are ordered to evacuate, “take your pets with you, but understand that only service animals may be permitted in public shelters.” If the highway is being bombed, “pull over, stop the car and set the parking brake.” Aside from these scary thoughts, the government advises, “Don’t be afraid…Be Ready.”

On March 11, ten explosions ripped through four commuter trains in Madrid, killing almost 200 people and injuring more than 1,500. In Washington, officials pondered an embarrassing question: What about our trains? Of the billions already spent on transportation security, all but a sliver has been devoted to air travel (even so, most air cargo remains unscreened for bombs). DHS Secretary Tom Ridge lamely announced plans for rapid-deployment dogs at train stations, also a “pilot program” to test the feasibility of screening all rail passengers and their luggage.

Vigilant Democrats jumped him anyway. Bush’s new budget provides a measly $34 million increase for rail security, they complained. They propose an immediate $1.2 billion for stepped-up surveillance of tracks, tunnels, bridges, stations–more guards, cameras, dogs. Doesn’t the White House know Penn Station handles more passengers than New York’s airports? Or that a rail tunnel runs under the Supreme Court and the Capitol grounds?

Actually, in terms of worldwide terrorist attacks, the most popular target is buses (ask the Israelis). Can one imagine bus passengers pausing to have their shopping bags X-rayed? Or the 8 million daily riders on New York’s subways? DFI International, a consulting firm, reported “a concern that increased spending on Amtrak will shift the threat to local commuter rails and subways, or even to bus systems,” and said it would take tens of billions to “introduce…the same level of security found at airports.”

The eager politics of tightening antiterrorist security perversely pushes the risk from one venue to another, from one set of potential victims to others just as innocent. Whatever the actual “threat level” may be, the act of building an electronic Fortress America, wired to prevent terrorists from blowing up Americans, is a physical impossibility. Think of waterborne commerce–300 ports, 1,000 harbor channels, 3,700 passenger and cargo terminals and 7 million cargo containers–all linked to industrial America’s factories and refineries, even nuclear power plants, where dangerous materials are always present. High-tech designers are at work on spy-in-the-sky solutions; lobbyists are pushing for the money.

There is, in fact, a lot of stuff you could blow up in this country. And occasionally some does blow up, without any help from terrorist cells. We live with these industrial risks every day. Some of them could be reduced and maybe should be. It costs money. But when an oil refinery explodes and kills some workers or a freight train derails, dousing a community with carcinogenic chemicals, nobody in politics proposes that we “go to war.”

Wasting money on faddish concerns is not the worst outcome. I would go further and assert that the “war on terrorism” itself will produce random injury and death–inadvertently, of course–because the spending will deform and undermine the country’s other priorities. The public health system, for example, has long been starved of adequate funding, but its role is being pushed aside by the exotic dangers of bioterrorism [see Katherine Eban, “Waiting for Bioterror,” December 9, 2002]. Anthrax is sexier than maternal and child healthcare, immunization, identifying industrial contaminants and disease control. Some children will doubtless pay with their lives for this shift in priorities.

Since 9/11, scaremongers in high places have thrilled the populace with lurid tales of how dread diseases or chemical toxins might be weapons of choice for the Islamic terrorists’ next great attack (though the only bioterrorism to date–the anthrax letters to Congress–was a domestic crime, and the culprit remains unknown). Nonetheless, Democrats proposed an expensive plan, and Bush stole their idea. Bioshield is a $6 billion invitation to the drug industry and biotech research companies to invent magic bullets–new vaccines to inoculate Americans against rare germs and poisons, new cures to heal victims and monitoring machines to detect a whiff of anthrax or sarin before anyone dies.

“I think Bioshield is all about diverting research money to the private sector,” said Dr. Tee Guidotti, chair of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. “This additional mission has been grafted onto the infrastructure of the public health system, which has been in decline for years, yet lacks the resources needed for rebuilding.” Public health priorities are thus determined not by how many people are at risk but by how rare the poisons are that might kill Americans, and which fiendish actors wish to kill them. “The potential investment for Bioshield is limited only by science fiction,” Guidotti said. He expects Bioshield to generate its own nightmares, because any surveillance system sensitive enough to detect a contaminant as rare as anthrax typically reports many more false alarms than real warnings.