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Our Hair Is on Fire

Authors: Warren B. Rudman, Stephen E. Flynn, Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow, and Gary Hart
December 16, 2004
Wall Street Journal


How can it be that homeland-security experts, almost without exception, believe terrorists will attack our key cities with something like a dirty nuclear bomb, yet our leaders have done little or nothing to prepare us for survival and recovery? Why isn't this issue at the top of President Bush's priorities along with Social Security, tax reform and fighting terrorism? How does leaving homeland security off this list square with Vice President Cheney's recently having called terrorist attacks on our cities "the biggest threat we face"?

There is little doubt that al Qaeda intends to and can detonate a weapon of mass destruction on U.S. soil. It would be reckless to think otherwise. Public statements by Osama bin Laden and captured documents in Afghanistan confirm this. The 9/11 Commission report makes clear that these jihadist terrorists have the organization and determination to do it. Nor can we count on our military efforts overseas or our seriously disorganized intelligence services to save us.

More than three years after 9/11, New York City still struggles to devise a workable emergency plan to cope with a dirty-bomb attack. No major city has exercised a system for the mass distribution of stockpiled medicines to deal with a bio attack. While nothing is more essential than crisis communications, no city but Washington has established routine radio contact between its fire departments and police departments. And our ports and borders, our economic lifelines to the world, still stand almost completely exposed. These facts have been reaffirmed by countless blue-ribbon panels.

So, why the inexplicable failure to act decisively? One problem is that no leader or high official wants to be Chicken Little, screaming daily that the sky is falling. Instead, official Washington readily consoles itself with the mantra "we're making progress, but there is more to be done."

We also lull ourselves into a false sense of security at home with the argument "the best defense is a good offense." But no matter how strong our offense abroad, its inevitable shortcomings still require us to prepare at home. Finally, the media seldom report that we are living on borrowed time, and squandering it. Is this story too boring for journalists?

Again, politics has vanquished common sense. Congress is treating homeland security in general, and getting funds to the most vulnerable cities in particular, as just another pork-barrel transportation bill. That is why Wyoming and Alaska have ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in per-capita spending and New York and California finish near and at the bottom. Recent legislation begins to address this problem, but does not go far enough nor provide nearly enough overall funds. This problem will persist until leaders of the states and cities most vulnerable shout even louder that their hair is on fire and President Bush and the new homeland-security secretary voice their opposition to the channeling of limited resources to politically dependable constituencies in low-risk rural states. Our prosperity is inextricably bound to the key cities and ports, but one would never know that by how these funds are dispersed.

Official Washington cherishes yet another excuse for not taking urgent action. Too many officials believe telling the truth to Americans about the risk would set off nationwide panic. Thus, they keep us sheep in the dark for our own good. All of this lulls Americans into believing nothing can be done to keep us safe.

But there are actions we can take, immediately and without huge expenditures, that will empower and reassure Americans and increase their chances of survival.

We need to make public health an urgent priority, providing the surge capacity for hospitals, and bolstering the ranks and resources of our emergency planners and emergency responders. Training exercises for the general public and the private sector also will pay big dividends. Perhaps most of all we need to train and equip the National Guard for its constitutional homeland-security duties.

Enough playing politics. Enough excuses. Shame on our leaders and on us if

the lamentations of the next blue-ribbon panel will be intoned over the graves

of hundreds of thousands of Americans, the collapse of our economy, and

perhaps a fatal blow to our way of life. Our hair is on fire.

Former Sens. Rudman and Hart were co-chairs of the U.S. Commission on

National Security in the 21st Century; Mr. Gelb, a commission member; and Mr. Flynn, a commission adviser.

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