The folly of `do it yourself' national security

February 21, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Pssst! Anybody want some duct tape?

How about 200 yards of plastic sheeting?

Yes, my fellow Americans. Someone at the Page household has, as in many other American households, panicked.

Our panic began when federal officials upgraded the nation's terrorist alert status to "Code Orange."

"What are we supposed to do?" asked the lovely and talented Mrs. Page.

Wake me when we reach "Code Indigo," I said.

Since this administration is too obsessed with secrecy to tell us why they're ratcheting the "alert" status up or down, the government's "alerts" basically remind us of what we Americans already know: Watch out, somebody might be trying to kill you.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people complain that the administration hasn't been more specific about how we should respond to alerts.

To make up for that info gap, at least partly, the Department of Homeland Security added some advice borrowed from the Israelis during Operation Desert Storm a decade ago: In case of biochemical attack, seal your windows with duct tape and plastic sheeting.

The next thing I know, I'm coming home to find that the Missus has bought a big bag of duct tape and plastic sheeting, "just in case."

While the White House has us searching for duct tape, it has diverted more effective resources that state and local governments desperately need to meet terrorist emergencies.

Remember how we celebrated the courage of police, firefighters, emergency medical personal and others after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

Well, as in a lot of other cities and towns, New York's firefighters still lack protective equipment to keep them breathing in a biochemical attack, and training to handle such possibilities as a radioactive "dirty bomb." Their radios still can't connect with those of police and other rescuers, as they couldn't when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.

As a result, emergency workers from across the country stood with Democratic leaders Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California this month to tell the world how the president's promises to "first responders" have amounted to more mouth than money.

Almost 18 months after 9/11, Congress last week finally approved $3.5 billion for first responders, although this is mostly money rechanneled from other accounts that would have gone to local police and fire departments anyway.

Mr. Bush's proposed budget for the next fiscal year calls for $3.6 billion in homeland security funding for localities - about half of what local governments and Democrats say is needed.

In its defense, the White House argues that there's not enough money in the world to save every American from terrorism - or "terror," as the president often calls our new foe. Fair enough. But the administration needs to coordinate a national strategy for defending our home front, instead of dragging its feet.

For example, as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley pointed out recently, the federal government has beefed up airline security since 9/11, but not our rail, highway or port security.

"If our own teen-age graffiti vandals can get to the chemical cars passing through American cities on our railroads, how hard could it be for al-Qaida?" Mr. O'Malley wrote Monday in The Washington Post. "Not hard at all, when you consider there are five security guards monitoring CSX tracks between Richmond and Wilmington, Del., two fewer than there were on Sept. 11, 2001."

But, ah, we have duct tape.

In an ironic way, the duct-tape fiasco is a self-satire of the Bush administration's tendency to stress "do it yourself" remedies for everything. Got a bad school? Take a voucher and shop around. Need health care? Here's a tax break so you can save some of your money for future ailments. Need security against terrorism? Buy duct tape.

Yes, individual responsibility is a beautiful thing, a basic ingredient of personal success. But, let's face it, national security needs to be handled by professionals who are paid, trained and equipped by all of us.

And it needs to be coordinated nationally. After all, a nuclear or biochemical danger released into the atmosphere doesn't respect city, county or state borders. It doesn't even respect duct tape.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com.

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