The false promise of `more' security

September 12, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- I know a financial adviser who has tried over time to get his family and clients to define economic security. Give me a dollar figure, he says to them.

The couples who can't make their paychecks stretch over their expenses usually come up with enough money to pay their bills. Those who have $20,000 in their post-Enron retirement portfolios will say $100,000. The people with $200,000 will say a million. The millionaires will say, oh, maybe 2 million.

He has come to the conclusion that there is only one figure that will make people secure: more.

I've thought of this over the past year when the subject turns to homeland security. We talk about beefing up homeland security these days as if America was a calf on steroids.

We've strengthened cockpit doors, turned sports stadiums into fortresses. We have fighter jets ready to intercept an airplane. We've distributed ID tags at work, installed cameras in parking lots and searched car trunks at the mall. We are adding layers of protection around nuclear power plants and new tests for the water supply.

Thirty billion dollars has been allocated this year for "more." Next year, there will be more "more." After that, we will want: more.

It's all happened reflexively, anxiously, understandably. But I wonder if Juliette Kayyem, who directs the program in domestic preparedness at Harvard's Kennedy School, isn't right when she worries that, "Too often, activity is mistaken for progress. In the flurry of 9/11, no one is thinking strategically about the $64,000 question -- when is enough enough?"

Ms. Kayyem is not suggesting, nor am I, that we already have "enough." But in the past year, as we grabbed for security in response to the fear of the day -- planes, anthrax, smallpox -- there's been a taboo about discussing what it means to be secure "enough."

My dictionary defines security as "freedom from risk or danger; safety." It doesn't say freedom from 72 percent of risks and 53 percent of dangers. It doesn't say "relative safety."

America is a country of bicycle helmets and air bags and liability lawsuits. My mattress and hairdryer and cleaning bag all come with consumer warnings. It's un-American to talk about "relative safety." So in a time when so few terrorists can inflict so much damage with such a small window of opportunity, our leaders are reluctant to admit that that "more" has no safety guarantee.

Ms. Kayyem recounts colleagues who say we have to get tough, we have to be more like Israel. To which she responds, "That's your example?" That's a secure society? Or is it proof that no matter how "tough," there is always risk?

This year I removed my shoes at so many airports that I assumed they were profiling middle-aged journalists. But my checked luggage went onto the plane unsearched. If and when they find and plug all the holes in the Swiss cheese of airport security, will the terrorists find a hole at the train station, the bus stop? If the postal system is secured against bioterrorism, what about FedEx? UPS?

There is, simply, no end to the possibilities for insecurity. Just a demand for "more."

Tom Ridge's Office of Homeland Security has listed 71 signs of "progress" in homeland security since Sept. 11. It is an erratic feel-good benchmark at best. A Pew poll has begun, just begun, to tell a different story. Since October, the number of people who rate the government homeland defense program as excellent or good hasn't risen, but rather has fallen from 69 percent to 57 percent.

It's not that "more" has made us feel "less" secure. Our recognition of the breadth of insecurity is growing faster than the "signs of progress."

The ordinary American has begun to understand what our leaders have trouble admitting: our inevitable vulnerability.

In the days after Sept. 11, children asked their parents the most primal of questions: Will the terrorists hit my house, my school? Parents gave blanket promises and reassurances to the young. Promises they may not be able to fulfill.

Our leaders, talking in the moral language of good and evil, in the vocabulary of black and white, have tried to make the same promises to us: We will keep you safe. Indeed, Americans search for smart, imaginative, flexible plans to protect us as well as possible. But the pledge of absolute security now rings hollow.

How do Americans redefine homeland security?

In this dangerous world, "more" is not always enough.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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