Patriot games

March 03, 2003

FEELING MANIPULATED lately?

Were you amazed when President Bush complained the other day that the Republican-led Congress failed to provide enough money for homeland security in a spending bill he repeatedly threatened to veto if it grew bigger? Do Mr. Bush's complaints seem related to Democratic charges that he has failed to adequately protect Americans from terrorist attacks?

Is it suspicious at all that taking the lead on those charges is the plethora of Democrats seeking to challenge Mr. Bush for the White House?

And what about those color-coded terrorist-threat levels that go up and down with little explanation and even less useful advice about how individual citizens should respond? Does the whole exercise seem more theatrical and political than practical?

Just 18 months since the devastating attacks on New York and Washington bound America's leaders in a solemn bipartisan accord to act as one in the nation's defense, this life-and-death business has been reduced to fodder for a political free-for-all.

On some level a return to normalcy is healthy. The great risk here is that the government will lose its credibility on the issue.

Americans have demonstrated an amazing tolerance for extraordinary inconvenience, such as vehicle checkpoints that choke off airport access, and silly suggestions, such as preparing to seal off rooms in the event of a chemical or biological attack.

People are scared and they're willing to make trade-offs in return for a promise of safety. Already, Americans have surrendered many rights to privacy, civil liberties and freedom of movement because they've been frightened into believing it was necessary.

But the Bush administration and its Democratic critics play a dangerous game when they play upon those fears for self-serving ends.

Debate over the size and nature of homeland security spending is appropriate and necessary. Democrats - as well as the Republican leaders of the House and Senate appropriations committees - lodged legitimate complaints last year that Mr. Bush was not sending enough to so-called first responders, the state and local agencies on the front lines of counterterrorism. According to independent studies, not even federal agencies charged with protecting ports, nuclear reactors and other critical facilities have gotten all the money they need.

Such critics also have to acknowledge limits. There isn't enough money in the world to absolutely protect every American. Mr. Bush can't be held to that standard.

Meanwhile, the president should forsake the breathtakingly cynical ploy of shifting blame for shortchanging counterterrorism to the Republican lawmakers who simply danced to his tune.

As with the boy who cried wolf, there may come a time when we just won't believe any of them anymore.

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