Ideas: Fixing the World July/August 2009

Civilize Homeland Security


The Department of Homeland Security should not exist. Its rushed, bipartisan creation in 2002 reflected the political imperative to do something in response to disaster, whether or not that something made sense. (See also: case for the Iraq War.)

Since then, it has failed basic tests of bureaucratic effectiveness. One of the supposed benefits of amalgamation was to remove wasteful overlap so America could spend more money where it mattered and cut back everywhere else. In fact, as Cindy Williams of MIT has demonstrated, the shares of the DHS budget now devoted to the department’s individual parts—the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, etc.—are the same as they were when they were first lumped together. The DHS has also failed to develop a sustainable long-term antiterrorism strategy. Such a strategy would involve: focusing on the truly catastrophic threats (above all, loose nukes); building the best recovery and emergency systems, for resilience in case Plan A fails; and otherwise encouraging free people to live brave lives. Instead, the open-ended “Threat Level Orange” approach promotes vague background anxiety, making the public too complacent and too fearful. As for resilience: the DHS component known as FEMA showed its stuff during Katrina.

Yet sometimes undoing a mistake is more disruptive than helpful. We probably can’t get rid of the department. So, two ways to mitigate the damage: change the offensive, antirepublican, Teutono-Soviet name Homeland to Civil, as in Department of Civil Security. And make civil-security spending what national-security spending was in the Eisenhower era, when interstate-highway-building and language-teaching were all part of “national defense”: an umbrella for investments in new energy and water supplies, public health, basic research, and other efforts that will actually make us more secure.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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