Marie Cocco / Joplin Globe – 2005-07-24 02:18:25
WASHINGTON (July 20, 2005) — Michael Chertoff scares me. That’s good, because Tom Ridge was just making us laugh.
Chertoff, the new homeland security chief, has been making the rounds in the past week after months immersed in the broken bureaucracy he inherited from Ridge. He’s thrown out the childish props that provided so much raw material for late-night comics. No duct tape for him.
Chertoff knows that few of the most visible “homeland security” measures the Bush administration made so much of after 9/11 are going to help. Certainly not the color-coded national threat-o-meter, which made people in Minnesota think they needed to worry as much as people in Manhattan. Not the 30-minute, no-stand rule aboard airliners flying in and out of Washington’s Reagan National Airport. Soon we may hear it is no longer necessary to force toddlers to remove their Shrek sneakers before boarding.
Chertoff is a serious man who insists upon talking about such serious possibilities as an attack involving nuclear materials, and the need for his department to have a chief medical officer to “mitigate” the effects of a biological attack. Listening to Chertoff, you sense that he agrees with just about every police official who popped up on TV in the days immediately after the London bombings. We can’t prevent every attack, they said.
So in Chertoff’s view, the federal government’s job is to try to prevent — and respond to — the worst of the worst-case scenarios. It is a sober idea, and altogether impolitic. The homeland security secretary came under fire from urban lawmakers, particularly those from New York, who took umbrage with his musings about the need to put a priority on preventing an attack that would involve mass casualties, rather than “a bomb in a subway car (that) may kill 30 people.”
The logic is reasonable. But it leads inevitably to a judgment no one dares speak.
Four years after 9/11, we are saying effectively that we are not winning the “war on terror.” What other explanation is there for a homeland security chief — a man so competent that his public statements cannot hide his conclusions — who has so much to worry about that he cannot really concern himself with a subway bombing?
Or ask the question another way, perhaps the way Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked it in October 2003: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” Obviously not.
The Madrid and London transit attacks, not to mention the Iraq insurgency, give lie to any assertion that we somehow are gaining ground in a “war” we seem to insist can be won through military means. It cannot. We eliminated the Afghan training camps, only to get word that England’s homegrown bombers went to Pakistan — a nation the White House counts as an ally — for terrorist indoctrination or training or both.
President Bush continues to repeat the creed that we are fighting terrorists in Iraq so that we do not have to fight them here at home. But Britain, too, is fighting in Iraq. So was Spain at the time of the Madrid attack. Did that make Britons and Spaniards safer?
What of the notion that the terrorists “hate our freedoms,” as the president has famously asserted, and detest our way of life? The presumed London suicide bombers were themselves free, most of them born and bred in Britain. One had just received the gift of a red Mercedes sedan. The attackers turned against family and country, but there is no indication they sought to impose a fundamentalist theocracy upon England out of sheer hatred for democratic capitalism.
For four years the president has recited mantras and called them counterterrorism policies. They aren’t. First they were speeches with sound bites meant to soothe voters during his re-election campaign. And since then, the repetition has been meant to placate a public increasingly ill at ease with the Iraq War. They omit any reference to U.S. policy in the Middle East, a political grievance that terrorist trainers exploit with ease.
Now the homeland security chief tells us we continue to be at risk for a catastrophe that troubles his sleep far more than the prospect of a bomb or two on a subway or bus. Chertoff manages to instill faith in his own stewardship, while simultaneously undermining confidence in the president he serves.
Address correspondence to Marie Cocco, Washington Post Writers Group, Box 500, Washington, D.C. 20071.