Cleared for takeoff

December 06, 2005

Don't get us wrong. We're really grateful about the scissors and corkscrews and other useful and not very threatening items that are finally about to be admitted back into airplane passenger cabins for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

But it seems the rational impulse to correct for overreaction may be a byproduct of a growing sense of complacency that's not at all wise or healthy. More than four years after the terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 Americans, several of the most obvious steps required to shore up the nation's security still haven't been taken, and there seems to be no great alarm about it.

For one glaring example, first-responder emergency personnel still have no way to communicate with each other because no part of the radio spectrum has been allocated for their use. Legislation pending in Congress can't fix that problem until 2009 at the earliest, according to Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the independent commission that studied how the nation could better prepare itself.

Powerful business interests are at play in any telecommunications debate, and in this case they have been unwilling to yield lucrative bandwidth in the name of national security.

The allocation of homeland security money has similarly fallen victim to this me-first mentality. Congress hands out funds intended to fortify the nation on the basis of population instead of relative risk.

That practice makes for a bonanza in rural areas, where Mr. Kean reported this week that money has been used to air-condition garbage trucks and armor dogs. But it shortchanges states like Maryland, which is nestled around such target-rich sites as Washington, the port of Baltimore and major defense and intelligence installations.

Typically, the Bush administration and Congress have done what's easy: They built a new bureaucracy but haven't adequately secured chemical, nuclear or cyber facilities.

When terrorists wielding box-cutters hijacked airplanes and flew them into buildings, the response was to exhaustively screen all air passengers and forbid them to carry sharp objects. It's long past time to be more creative. The 9/11 commission concluded that the nation was vulnerable because of a failure of imagination. Four years and some months later, that diagnosis still applies.

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