"Ain't Gonna Study War No More"

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Monday, September 12, 2005

Have We Learned Nothing

"We turned it all into Homeland Security and invested countless billions, in the hope that next time disaster or terrorists struck, the federal government would be ready, possessed of a coherent plan and ready to spring into action to save lives and ease suffering. Then came Katrina. And it turned out that the empire had no clothes."

Back To Ground Zero

Katrina forces us to confront the question: Have we learned nothing from the terrorist attacks of four years ago?

Four years later Hurricane Katrina has provided some unwelcome context within which to view the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Today, more Americans seem inclined to draw what seems to some of us the inescapable conclusion of both disasters: Both 9/11 and Katrina represent enormous failures by the federal government to provide the one thing most Americans think government actually ought to do: protect the people from threats foreign, domestic and natural.

But in the months after 9/11, most Americans had seemed to learn the lesson the government wanted to teach: The failure of the government to prevent the attacks proved that government needed to be even bigger and more powerful, possessed of more powers to deploy - hopefully against terrorists and other genuine threats, but against the American people if they got too uppity - in the never-ending quest for perfect safety. So we got the Transportation Security Administration confiscating fingernail clippers at airports and the Patriot Act authorizing snooping into people's reading habits at libraries - and being deployed against a strip club owner in Las Vegas dabbling in minor municipal graft.

We got the behemoth Homeland Security Administration, cobbled together from existing agencies, all of which needed reform but were pretty much guaranteed immunity from skepticism now that they had become fashionable. The president saw his approval in the polls, which had been languishing after a lackadaisical first summer in office, shoot up to 90 percent in the Sept. 21-22 Gallup Poll. To keep those ratings high we saw him not only declare "war on terrorism" but try to buy votes the old-fashioned way: with a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients, the No Child Left Behind education act that increased the grip of the federal government over the nation's schools, and increased domestic spending.

And we got the war in Iraq, which, when all the prewar justifications melted into nothingness, was rhetorically transformed into a new war to make the world safe for democracy. Few paid attention to the few among us who noted that having U.S. troops stationed all over the world, often meddling in local politics, was a provocation to terrorists, even though a Pentagon study had shown that terrorist incidents directed against United States interests and friends always increased in areas where the U.S. was actively engaged.

Few took seriously the contention - despite significant evidence - that the U.S. intelligence "community" failed to connect the dots prior to 9/11 not because it was underfunded and underresourced, but because it was too big, too bloated and too full of people more interested in bureaucratic games and turf battles than in protecting the American people.

So we turned it all into Homeland Security and invested countless billions, in the hope that next time disaster or terrorists struck, the federal government would be ready, possessed of a coherent plan and ready to spring into action to save lives and ease suffering. Then came Katrina. And it turned out that the empire had no clothes.

The death toll for the hurricane is not in yet, and it could turn out to be lower than the tens of thousands some officials are predicting. But estimates of the cost to taxpayers, just at the level of the national government, for rescue, repair, temporary housing and rebuilding are now approaching $100 billion, or about five times the $21 billion the feds allocated to New York City after the 9/11 attacks.

The formalities of declaring a federal emergency were finished Saturday, Aug. 27. As the hurricane approached the Gulf Coast, it was upgraded to a Category 4 and then, briefly, a Category 5. According to Dr. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, President Bush and FEMA Director Michael Brown were briefed on the likelihood the New Orleans levees would be breached and the city flooded. Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation Monday morning but didn't mobilize school buses and municipal buses to carry it out.

On Monday morning Katrina made landfall and water started to flow over the levees almost immediately. President Bush went to an Arizona resort and a California senior center to promote his Medicare benefit. At 11:30 a.m. FEMA director Brown requested that Homeland Security dispatch 1,000 people to New Orleans; his memo gave them two days to arrive.

The long and short of it was that the federal government's emergency management capability, after all that beefing up, was a muscle-bound behemoth that couldn't move without 17 signatures in triplicate and had no sense of mission or urgency.

As late as Wednesday night on CNN, Brown was claiming, "I must say, this storm is much bigger than anyone expected," after at least a week of cable-news hype about how much bigger Katrina was than previous storms. Perhaps federal officials should be congratulated for ignoring most of what appears on cable news. But for ignoring what their own officials told them?

After the terrorist attacks administration officials often repeated the mantra, "9/11 changed everything." (As with so much leading to the Iraq war and beyond, it was Vice President Dick Cheney who actually used the phrase repeatedly, to justify military operations and incursions on civil liberties).

Yes, the terrorist attacks did change a lot. They drove home the lesson that there are Islamist jihadists out there who not only hate the United States but had the capability of carrying out a devastating attack on American soil. They gave the government license to attack Afghanistan, detain about a thousand Muslims without charges or lawyers for months, and later to opt out of international agreements on the treatment of prisoners.

But those attacks did not mark an end of American innocence or a watershed change in American attitudes. The president told us to be vigilant and shop 'til we dropped, the government would handle things. There was an inspiring outburst of volunteerism and fellow-feeling, not only in America but around the world. But before long most Americans - and most decidedly most politicians - returned to the usual habits of thinking first about Number One. And the government commenced squandering the tide of sympathy that the attacks engendered.

Unfortunately, those who became most influential in affecting U.S. policy - people who had been hoping for a way to take Saddam Hussein down since the first gulf war - did not maintain a laser-like focus on the actual threat.

Faced with a stateless terrorist organization that used the Internet and other technology to coordinate a dispersed and decentralized organization, they insisted on doing what a country with an effective military would prefer to do rather than deal with a novel threat that's difficult to identify and penetrate. They identified a state to attack in a military way, then hyped that third-rate dictatorship that posed no immediate threat to any of its neighbors into an imminent threat to the most powerful nation the world had ever known.

Four years later, Osama bin Laden is still at large. Terrorist attacks around the world have increased, not decreased. The United States military is overstretched and ill-used in an occupation in a largely hostile country - or at least with enough hostiles to create chaos - in which several Americans a day are killed and the insurgency keeps growing. Military morale and recruitment are on the verge of serious trouble. Anti-Americanism has increased exponentially.

We haven't begun to learn - we haven't begun to think about - the lesson that government hyperactivity overseas creates more enemies than friends. We haven't learned that bigger government is not better government and more often than not is uncoordinated and incompetent in spectacular ways. We haven't learned that the state as an institution, rooted in and depending on force as it is, cannot generate compassion, wisdom or protection, that intelligent people eventually learn to depend on themselves and their neighbors rather than bureaucracies by the Potomac.

Perhaps Katrina will help Americans to begin to think about these issues more clearly.

Alan Bock
Sr. editorial writer
The Orange County Register



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