Danger we face should be on front page

August 31, 2004|By John Atcheson

WASHINGTON - It's practically raining mea culpas from the press.

But even as they apologize for ignoring evidence that the administration deceived us in the run-up to the Iraqi war, their headlines have been dominated by Swift boats, gay marriage and stem-cell research while they relegate to the inside pages warnings from a chorus of serious and credible people trying to tell us of a clear and present danger.

Another day dominated by non-news; another day closer to the unthinkable happening; another day closer to the media's next mea culpa.

Here are some of the issues playing out beneath the banner headlines:

While most Americans know there's a controversy over Sen. John Kerry's war record, few know that there are about 25,000 shipping containers entering U.S. ports every day and that about 23,750 of them are not inspected. Nor do they know that Mr. Bush cut port security grants to just $46 million, 63 percent less than last year. According to Coast Guard estimates, the Bush budget will leave us $500 million shy of what's needed next year to protect out ports.

Americans don't know that while they stand in long airport security lines getting frisked, and their checked luggage gets X-rayed and inspected, an estimated 2.5 million tons of commercial cargo gets loaded into the bellies of passenger planes each year with scarcely a glance. Why? Because the Bush administration says we don't have enough money to screen it.

And most Americans don't know that the trains, subways, commuter rails, ferries and buses they board every day are in need of $6 billion worth of security upgrades, according to William Millar, head of the American Public Transportation Association. Nor do they know that Mr. Bush has put only $115 million into securing our public transportation system since 2001.

Americans are blissfully unaware that the Government Accountability Office stated in testimony before Congress earlier this year that the United States had made little progress in cutting off al-Qaida funding.

And Americans don't know that their first-responders don't have enough money to respond, no matter what the color of the day might be.

And while the administration was quick to raise the specter of mushroom clouds to justify the Iraq invasion, most Americans don't know that Mr. Bush is spending only $1 billion a year to deal with real sources of unsecured nuclear material from Russia and other countries - enough to make as many as 40,000 nuclear bombs, according to the Congressional Research Service.

It's a pretty-well-kept secret that six American universities are still using weapons-grade radioactive material in their poorly guarded research labs because they can't afford to convert to something safer.

And few know how vulnerable our electric power system and our chemical plants are to sabotage.

Each of these issues poses an immediate threat to the United States. And the Bush administration's excuse for not funding them at higher levels is a lack of resources, even though there was enough slack in the budget to give wealthy Americans an average tax cut of more than $78,000 each last year and enough to spend $150 billion and counting in Iraq.

Because the press is still giving short shrift to serious issues raised by credible people, most Americans don't know that they are much closer to that mushroom cloud Mr. Bush threatened us with than we were three years ago. And if the unthinkable happens, the press will share responsibility.

It's going to take one heck of a mea culpa to forgive that.

John Atcheson has held a variety of policy positions in several federal government agencies.

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