[Paleopsych] NYT Editorial: Our Unnecessary Insecurity
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Fri Apr 8 19:24:42 UTC 2005
Our Unnecessary Insecurity
The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial: Our Unnecessary Insecurity
"Sept. 11 changed everything," the saying goes. It is striking,
however, how much has not changed in the three and a half years since
nearly 3,000 people were killed on American soil. The nation's
chemical plants are still a horrific accident waiting to happen.
Nuclear material that could be made into a "dirty bomb," or even a
nuclear device, and set off in an American city remains too accessible
to terrorists. Critical tasks, from inspecting shipping containers to
upgrading defenses against biological weapons, are being done poorly
or not at all.
Costly as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were in lives, the death toll
from a chemical, biological or nuclear attack could be far, far
greater. A nation as open and complex as ours can never be totally
safe from such dangers. But there is a great deal that can be done,
without compromising our basic liberties, to eliminate obvious
openings for terrorist attacks.
The biggest obstacles to making the nation safer have been lack of
political will and failure to carry out the most effective policies.
The Bush administration and Congress have been reluctant to provide
the necessary money - even while they are furiously reducing revenue
with tax cuts. The funds that are available are often misdirected. And
Washington has caved to pressure from interest groups, like the
chemical industry, that have fought increased security measures.
Most of all, the government has failed to lay out a broad strategy for
making the nation more secure. Among the most troubling
vulnerabilities that have yet to be seriously addressed:
Chemical Plants After Sept. 11, the Environmental Protection Agency
identified 123 chemical plants that could, in a worst-case attack,
endanger one million or more people. There is an urgent need for
greater action to protect them. But the chemical industry, a major
Bush-Cheney campaign contributor, has bitterly fought needed
safeguards. In her recent book "It's My Party Too," the former
administrator of the E.P.A., Christie Whitman, said that chemical
industry lobbyists thwarted the reasonable safety rules that she and
the Department of Homeland Security tried to impose.
Nuclear Materials A nuclear attack in an American city is the ultimate
nightmare. The desire, on the part of the terrorists, is there: Osama
bin Laden has declared acquisition of nuclear weapons to be a
religious duty. Fortunately, there are considerable logistical and
technological hurdles to terrorists' setting off a nuclear device. But
it is far from impossible, and a so-called dirty bomb, which disperses
radioactive material without a nuclear explosion, could be less of a
challenge to make. The key to prevention is identifying and securing
nuclear weapons and materials, especially in the former Soviet Union.
Nuclear Power Plants There are more than 100 nuclear reactors
producing energy in the United States. Many of them are in heavily
populated areas. Some may be vulnerable to a suicide attack from the
air, particularly if a plane managed to crack the wall around the pool
of spent fuel, causing a fire that would send clouds of toxic gas into
the atmosphere. Setting off a truck bomb could also have a devastating
effect. While the plants are protected by armed guards, not all of
those teams are of the highest quality. If the government can
federalize airport luggage checkers, it should be able to provide the
same consistency to security around nuclear power plants.
Port Security One of the greatest threats to national security is the
possibility that a weapon of mass destruction could be smuggled in on
one of the millions of shipping containers that arrive from overseas
every year. The government is doing more than it once did to inspect
these containers, but there is still far too little money and manpower
devoted to this crucial task.
Hazardous Waste Transport Millions of tons of highly toxic chemicals
and nuclear waste are shipped by railroad and truck, much of it
through or near densely populated areas. The District of Columbia
Council recently adopted a temporary ban on such shipments after a
Naval Research Laboratory scientist warned that if a 90-ton tanker car
carrying chlorine crashed during a Fourth of July celebration at the
National Mall, it could kill 100,000 people in 30 minutes. But it
makes no sense that one municipality is protecting itself against a
worst-case situation while in other parts of the country, regulation
of the transport of hazardous materials remains woefully inadequate.
Bioterrorism The anthrax attacks of the fall of 2001 only began to
suggest the devastating power of biological weapons. While officials
are all too aware of the mortality rate that would follow an attack
with weapons-grade anthrax, smallpox or plague, controls are still
spotty. Lethal pathogens are too often stored in insecure
Given these serious gaps, it is disturbing to see limited resources
used as inefficiently as they have been. Fighting the last war, the
Bush administration is devoting far too great a proportion of domestic
security spending to preventing the hijacking of commercial aircraft.
For a long time, it engaged in a draconian crackdown on academic
visas, while the nation's borders - the likeliest entry points for
future terrorists - remained as porous as ever. And with the stakes
literally life or death, the pork-barrel politics that have controlled
domestic security funds - giving Wyoming more per capita than New
Jersey - are simply unconscionable.
While the administration does too little on one hand, it overreacts on
the other, and seems oblivious to how its excesses are actually making
America less safe. The abuse of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and the
refusal to abide by either international law or basic constitutional
principles do little to protect the nation, but make it harder for us
to enlist much-needed allies, and provide powerful talking points for
terrorist recruiting drives.
Many Americans have a false sense of security because there has not
been a terrorist assault in the United States since the World Trade
Center towers and the Pentagon were attacked. But that may have less
to do with terrorists' intents than their timeline. Eight years went
by between the 1993 attack that failed to bring down the World Trade
Center and the one that finally did.
Looking back, we feel a natural frustration at all the warning signs
that were ignored before Sept. 11. There is now a wide array of
government reports, private studies and even best-selling books
alerting us to remaining vulnerabilities. If the United States is hit
by another attack at one of those points, we will have only ourselves
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