The Futility of "Homeland Defense"

Don't even try to close the holes in a country, and a society, designed to be porous

Get over thinking that America can be made safe. Defending a country as big and commercially robust as the United States raises profound, and probably insurmountable, issues of scale. There has been much talk of "Israelifying" the United States, but America has about forty-seven times as many people as Israel, and roughly 441 times the amount of territory to be defended. New Jersey alone is 753 square miles bigger than Israel, and home to nearly 2.5 million more people. Beyond problems of size, it's all too reasonable to assume that America won't be safe. Righting various asymmetries merely designs—as opposed to prevents—the next attack. When one target is shored up, nimble transnational cells that can turn on a dime simply find new bull's-eyes. Up against those practical realities, homeland security is the national version of the gas mask in the desk drawer—something that lets people feel safer without actually making them so.

If America is riddled with holes and targets, it's because a big society designed to be open is hard to change—impossible, probably. In 2000 more than 350 million non-U.S. citizens entered the country. In 1999 Americans made 5.2 billion phone calls to locations outside the United States. Federal Express handles nearly five million packages every business day, UPS accounts for 13.6 million, and until it became a portal for terror, the Postal Service processed 680 million pieces of mail a day. More than two billion tons of cargo ran in and out of U.S. ports in 1999, and about 7.5 million North Americans got on and off cruise ships last year.

Group targets are plentiful. There are eighty-six college and professional stadiums that seat more than 60,000 people, and ten motor speedways with capacities greater than 100,000; the Indianapolis Motor Speedway seats more than 250,000. Few other countries offer the opportunity to take aim at a quarter million people at once. Also plentiful are tall buildings—until just yesterday the dominant symbol of civic pride. Fifty of the hundred tallest buildings in the world are on U.S. soil. Minneapolis, a mid-size city that doesn't leap to mind as a target, has three of them. And one of its suburbs has the largest shopping mall in the country, the Mall of America, with at least 600,000 visitors a week.

As for trained personnel to defend our borders and targets, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which oversees the inspection of half a billion people a year, has only 2,000 agents to investigate violations of immigration law. The Postal Service has only 1,900 inspectors to investigate the misuse of mail. According to one estimate, it would take 14,000 air marshals to cover every domestic flight—more than the total number of special agents in the FBI. The former drug czar General Barry McCaffrey has pointed out that at least four different agencies oversee 303 official points of entry into the United States. After staffing increases over the past three years there are 334 U.S. Border Patrol agents guarding the 4,000 miles of Canadian border. The nation has 95,000 miles of shoreline to protect. "No one is in charge," McCaffrey says.

In all the discussion of building a homeland-security apparatus, very little attention has been paid to the fundamental question of whether 100 percent more effort will make people even one percent safer. The current version of America can no more button up its borders than mid-empire Britain could. Not just cultural imperatives are at stake. America makes its living by exporting technology and pop culture while importing hard goods and unskilled labor. The very small percentage of unwanted people and substances that arrive with all the people and things we do want is part of the cost of being America, Inc.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Drug Wars
The companion Web site to a PBS Frontline special about America's war on drugs. Includes profiles of anti-drug warriors, interviews, the transcript of a symposium, and more.

This is not the first time a President has declared a war within U.S. borders. In 1969 President Richard Nixon promised a "new urgency and concerted national policy" to combat the scourge of drugs—an initiative that has lurched along for more than three decades, growing to the point where the government spent $18.8 billion in 2000 trying to solve America's drug problem.

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