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.”