Rethinking Homeland Security

The second anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 atrocities is a good time for new scrutiny of increased "homeland security." The massive effort is expensive, misdirected, and possibly even dangerous.

Homeland security measures began as a round-up of Muslim men within days of the attacks. "Security" has quickly grown into an enormous bureaucracy and legal juggernaut. Thousands of Muslim men in America have been detained in prison. Hundreds of Arabic, South Asian, and Muslim men have been deported for visa violations, and dozens have been charged with crimes. The budget for the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) exceeds $100 billion.

Anyone who enters a skyscraper, a museum, or a ballpark just about anywhere sees the heightened security: metal detectors, searches of bags, identification procedures—all of these are costs borne largely by local and state governments, the private sector, and consumers. Cities and states are told to tighten security and bleed the resources from education budgets or incur debt to do so. The raising of the federal alert from yellow to orange alone costs local law enforcement millions of dollars in overtime for police.

Some Democrats have raised concerns about the money going into this colossal undertaking, saying funds aren’t going to the places needing it most. Republicans have marched almost completely in locked step with the White House. Both parties are missing two fundamental points. First, we need to ask whether a terrorist threat warranting such spending and fear actually exists. If the answer to that is yes, even tentatively, then we should demand a homeland security effort that provides something positive and tangible. Second, if we face years or even decades of terrorism, and, most acutely, terrorism using weapons of mass destruction, then we need to make sure that the funds are going to the right place and not just to a few more dollars to firefighters or police departments.

Are we at risk for future terrorist attacks? Since the 2001 attacks about two dozen cases have been brought against alleged terrorists in Buffalo, Seattle, Chicago, Oregon, Northern Virginia, Tampa, and Detroit. In reading the indictments and plea bargains of these cases, one is struck by the lack of concrete evidence of any major conspiracies or actions against the United States itself. Most involve discussions about "jihad," going to Afghanistan or Pakistan to train or fight, setting up target practice locally, and sending money to organizations listed as being terrorist. Many of these cases resulted in convictions on relatively minor charges. In at least two of the cases, defense attorneys insist, plea bargains came as a result of threats by the federal prosecutors that the defendants would be taken to military tribunals, held in isolation, and possibly executed. All in all, given the thousands of interrogations and the actual cases brought, it can safely be concluded that internally, at least, no significant threat exists. None even hinted at weapons of mass destruction or anything as dangerous as a truck bomb.

Despite this, many people agree that homeland security must be a priority. To enhance security in a way that most benefits the American people, we need to think creatively. Security is not just about organizing military preparedness or more sophisticated techniques of surveillance and detection. It should instead be regarded as a function of social organization, of how American society and its institutions are organized. We will achieve enhanced security at home only by creating an America where people are better educated, better employed, healthier, more just, and more equitable.

Regrettably, our current government is far from this thinking. The Bush administration has scarcely mentioned the social contributions necessary for greater security. The only distinctly social activities urged by the White House seem limited to neighborhood "watch" committees and tattling, and praying. Public discourse on homeland security has been rather formless, rotating around vaguely articulated threats, frantic efforts at military and first-responder readiness, and fitful bureaucratic consolidation. Even the color-coded alert system seems now to be largely disregarded or ridiculed.

How should we think differently about homeland security? Like many aspects of American life, exposure to risk is not allocated equally across American society. Vulnerability is, in part, contingent on one’s social position. Those who are malnourished, poorly housed, poorly educated, and poorly informed have a different "vulnerability profile" than do those who are well off, live in secure neighborhoods, are well educated and well informed.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s recent book, "Heat Wave," showed how the 700 deaths in Chicago’s 1995 heat wave were not random, but had strong socioeconomic markers -- the poor and the old were most vulnerable, confirmed again by early reports about thousands of fatalities in France from this summer's heat wave. This would also be true for many kinds of terrorist attacks.

Social vulnerability, and the strategies needed to protect Americans, are linked to larger patterns of social inequality. The poor tend to live near potential hazardous facilities like power plants or seaports. The elderly tend to be less able to adapt to disruptions in public services or emergency conditions. Those who rely on publicly funded institutions are also most vulnerable to the cutbacks in public services in part necessitated by increases in spending for the military and homeland security. Because the nation’s politicians are not accounting for such effects, the priorities and expenditures tend to reinforce existing patterns of social inequality.

Two social, economic, and physical infrastructures essential to our lives can serve as illustrations: public health and transportation. Virtually all functions of protection and response involve the public health system. The smallpox vaccination controversy, the anthrax scare, and the September 11 attack itself highlight this fact. The capacity of public health infrastructures to adapt to new homeland security requirements is questionable; the system is already overburdened. Even the relatively tiny smallpox vaccination program is straining public health agencies. Underfunded and underappreciated, public health practitioners must cope with multiple and immediate threats—HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancies, gun violence, West Nile Virus, to name just a few. Because of the fiscal crises of the federal and state governments, health efforts are being cut back, while new homeland-security mandates, many of them without funds, are flowing in.

Similarly, many of the nightmare terrorist scenarios of attack involve the nation’s enormous transportation infrastructure and the routes into the country from foreign lands. Airport security is one obvious focal point; subways are gradually becoming another. But consider less visible frailties. Tens of millions of shipments of hazardous materials —chemicals like chlorine, or petroleum fuels—occur annually in the United States. Using the nuclear storage site in Nevada would require nearly 92,000 shipments of nuclear waste, 80 percent by truck. The Oklahoma City bombing of underscores trucking issues, and today the trucking industry is resisting security improvements (like extra locks, or background checks on drivers) as too costly. Seaports and pipelines are ticking time bombs, and even railroad lines are insecure, sometimes with loaded cars of hazardous materials sitting in unguarded yards. Most of the suggested fixes for such vulnerabilities are more police and surveillance, which are inadequate, costly, and raise civil liberties qualms. We need to rethink how and why we are vulnerable, and how we can reorganize the ways we live to reduce vulnerability.

Rethinking Homeland Security

How, then, to proceed? The public should be demanding a tangible return on its investments in homeland security, one in which benefits accrue whether or not a terrorist attack occurs. Consider again the example of transportation of hazardous materials. Millions of miles of roadways and pipelines, the hundreds of transit facilities, the petroleum trucks delivering fuels to millions of homes and businesses—these cannot all be guarded. Instead, petroleum dependency and use of other hazardous materials should be regarded as unnecessary luxuries of a bygone era.

The vulnerabilities of energy supply and transportation have a long trail from unstable regions like the Persian Gulf: from there it is transported on tankers, through seaports, into refineries and storage, onto roadways, and into our neighborhoods. Each point is vulnerable and lethal. This are profoundly inappropriate given the new realities of insecurity. The fundamental challenge is to reduce our petrochemical dependency. We need an urgent national dialogue on the tradeoffs between oil consumption and renewable resources. There are costs in change, but also benefits: a cleaner environment, healthier communities, more control over resources—and more security.

The public health system is another example. Investing in the public health system is a sound idea. But we should also be investing much more in understanding how to contain new and re-emerging infectious diseases. This requires a commitment to global health surveillance and cures, because, as the SARS epidemic reminds us, the vectors of globalization carry disease as well as goods. We should help American hospitals to meet many different kinds of demands from all constituencies—providing enlarged "surge capacity" in emergency rooms, for example, which supports communities afflicted with flu or contaminated with anthrax. We should revisit the idea of neighborhood health clinics, both to alleviate the inequality of access to basic health care and to mount the most efficient response to bioterrorism. We need an overall commitment to the very idea of the social benefits of health and the necessity of a vital public-health system.

It is quite possible that America will not suffer another significant terrorist attack. But as we commemorate those who died on September 11, 2001, we should also demand more from our government. More investment into the public welfare will not only improve our society, it may help prevent another tragedy.

John Tirman is program director at the Social Science Research Council in Washington, D.C.

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