Entry from November 4, 2002

Like the great Ed Anger of the Weekly World News, I’m pig-biting mad that anyone would pay the slightest attention to the Hart-Rudman task force on homeland security of the Council on Foreign Relations or its report, “America Still Unprepared, America Still in Danger”? Why should the thing even exist, let alone get its pronouncements listened to with respect? Who doesn’t know that the committee and the report are all a charade, utterly compromised by the most fundamental of bureaucratic principles, which guarantees that any conclusions reached by either will be of one kind and one kind only.

This is the principle that goes under the familiar acronym of CYA. Very well. What, then, do you suppose you will get if you charge the task force to assess, as it were independently — that is the reason for that “bipartisan” cast and the leadership of the former Republican Senator Rudman and the former Democratic Senator Hart, which is also an exercise in CYA — the state of the nation’s security? Is there any slightest chance — one in a million? one in a billion? — that the report would come back saying: Everything’s hunky-dory, folks; them terrorists can’t touch us now?

Of course not. There is nothing to be lost from predicting disaster and everything to be lost from not predicting it. Just like everybody else in Washington those task forcers are going to make darned sure that, if there is another terror-attack — as of course anyone with the slightest pretension to sagacity in these matters will tell you there will be, as George Tenet has just told us there will be — nobody’s going to be able to point the finger at them and say: It’s your fault for not warning us, for telling us everything was as safe as safe could be. Yet when, as predictably as the sunrise, the task force comes back with a whole laundry list of dire contingencies for us to worry about, the media just as predictably treat it like a big story. Oh no! Look what might happen!

This is like headlining: “Top Republican says Republicans are best party,” or “Butcher says eating meat is good for you,” or “Airlines say, flying is safest form of transport.” If we would take none of these assurances at face value, why do we take the alarm of government or of quasi-governmental committees, which have every bit as much of a vested interest in their conclusions? We understand the reasons the media are ready to believe it. Complacency and security do not sell papers. The media fat boys get that way by making our flesh creep on every possible occasion, and viewing-with-alarm the complacency of others will do almost as well as fantasizing a nuclear or chemical-biological future, particularly if you belong (as the media do) to the party out of power.

Ultimately, this may be an argument against the proposed department of homeland security, now stuck in Congress, since the force of bureaucratic inertia would force such a department to become a mere warning-issuing agency attempting to anticipate every possible threat to our security so that it could not be accused of inattention or “complacency.” As such it would be engaged in a perpetual dialogue with the media, who would be trying to catch it out with unanticipated dangers. Obviously such an agency couldn’t do anything more than its assembled components are doing now about the vast number of potential threats. It would simply make the media’s targeting easier.

All politicians must toe the line too, since they know it would be political death to be accused of complacency. So when Frank Rich, who views-with-alarm for the op-ed page of the New York Times, calls Senator John McCain and asks him what he thinks of the D.C. sniper, the senator is obliged to reply: “Even if the sniper isn”t connected to Al Qaeda, he”s showing our vulnerability.” Duh! Is there anyone who is such a fool as not already to be aware of our vulnerability — whether to a nutcase with a sniper rifle or a foreign terrorist with a dirty bomb? Is this news? Does either the columnist or the senator really suppose that it is? No, but they still have to do their little dance, and put on their horror masks because that is the way the game is played in Washington and among those who cover Washington.

Frank Rich tells us that “Mr. Hart says that what united the entire task force was the feeling that there’s “no sense of urgency and we have slipped back into business as usual.” But maybe it not such a bad thing to get back into the mode of “business as usual” instead of always trying to appear “prescient,” as the warners do — or as the media so spent much of the early summer berating the administration for not being. The problem isn’t that, as some people seem to think, there is no warning of a terrorist attack (which is why they get mad when they discover there was) but that there are constant warnings, and that if you heeded all of them you would never get anything done.

That’s why “business as usual,” pace Mr Hart (whom I see George Stephanopoulos is touting, unbelievably, as a Democratic presidential nominee) is a good thing — because it is in business as usual that we triumph over the terrorist in the only way we can, which is by not allowing ourselves to be terrorized.

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