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As a scientist, I watch the Department of Homeland Security fairly carefully, because they are a potential source of a substantial amount of money. But, I am appalled at some of what I see. It seems that the Department of Homeland Security is willing to throw money at absurd projects with the firm understanding that it is best to be seen as active, despite the waste, despite the damage to American political traditions, and irrespective of whether the projects actually help.

National ID cards are just one example. Who can explain how they will make the nation more secure? I see no one.

The America that devotes all its energies to homeland security, subordinating everything to security against a threat that is largely theoretical is not the America I grew up in. When I was born, the threat of nuclear war was real. Bombers and ICBMs were ready, aimed at us, with loads that would dwarf the dreams of modern terrorists. Compared to that threat, why should we be scared? Why do we hide and limit our own liberties?

President Eisenhower once warned about the military-industrial complex. Now, in 2005, it is instead a security-industrial complex. We have spawned an industry that makes its living by causing fear and insecurity, breeding more demands for security, and thus causing money to flow. We have given the industry an incentive to scare us. American industry is efficient and effective, and has swung into action as the profit motive has become clear.

Everyone involved is well-meaning; there are no villans. Even so, there are consultants who (like everyone else) need to pay their mortgages. To do this, they think up potential security threats. University professors (who depend on research grants for their summer salary) propose wild and wonderful projects that they justify as possible counters to these theoretical threats. Other consultants (whose children's teeth need braces) advise the DHS that the threats could be real. Corporations (whose stockholders want a good return on their investment) lobby lawmakers and do their best to make their anti-terrorism products and services seem essential. DHS staffers (who are only human) begin to believe that their task is more important, more critical, and more urgent than anything else.

The result? Ten thousand voices telling each other, our elected representatives and ourselves stories. What politician can vote against homeland security when so many people say it is so important? Yes, there is clearly a terrorist threat, as there has been for over a hundred years. The Victorians worried about poison in the public water supplies * ; in the 1920s, we worried about bomb-throwing anarchists. There is clearly a terrorist threat, but now that we have built an industry that lives off the threat, could the threat perhaps be a little bit exaggerated?

* And not just the Victorians. Apparently, the Edgehill Reservoir in Nashville Tennesee was fenced off in 1917 because of fears that the Germans might sneak in and poison the city's water supply. I will leave it to the reader to figure out how much poison would be needed (it's a remarkably large amount <see?> ), and why German agents would attack Nashville. Needless to say, either the fence worked or the threat wasn't as large as Nashville believed.
[ Papers | | Phonetics Lab | Oxford ] Last Modified Thu Jun 5 06:24:09 2008 Greg Kochanski: [ ]