The Expulsion From the Magic Kingdom

The Expulsion From the Magic Kingdom

September 11 was America's Fall. Now we need to rethink national defense in an era of national insecurity

By Jack Beatty

The nightmarish cover story in the May 26 New York Times Magazine, "How Scared Should We Be?," by Bill Keller, lights up unsparingly the "seriousness gap" between the likelihood and lethality of the dangers that face us and what we are doing to defend against them. While it will take three more years until all luggage on every flight is routinely inspected (according to a source who handles baggage at Boston's Logan Airport, only 2 percent of bags are being inspected now), while less than 5 percent of the shipping containers that arrive at U.S. ports each day are inspected, and while the Energy Department has yet to develop equipment for detecting radiological bombs being smuggled in trucks ("What is the Energy Department waiting for?," former undersecretary of defense Fred Ikle asks, "the next 9/11?"), the Pentagon is using the war on terror to binge on Cold War weapons, including a missile-defense system that is to our imminent peril what the Maginot Line was to the Nazi blitzkrieg. While pledging to cooperate, the CIA and the FBI are each trading sensational leaks on the pre-September 11 failures of the other. While rightly saying our enemies represent an evil comparable to fascism and communism, President Bush asks for no sacrifices from Americans to match those made by the World War II generation, which ranged from rationing gasoline to paying war-profits taxes, or by a Cold War generation that sustained the only peacetime draft in U.S. history—sacrifices that welded the national unity and helped us prevail in the fifty-year war against totalitarianism.

Instead, he seeks to make permanent the income-tax cuts enacted last year. Those cuts were targeted overwhelmingly to the top 1 percent and in their solidarity-breaking spirit and fiscal insouciance, they belong to the world of budget surpluses and no enemies that collapsed on September 11. Even worse, the President and his party, as well as a disheartening number of Democrats, want to lift permanently the burden of the estate tax on the 6,000 Americans (out of the more than 2 million who die per year) who leave enough behind to pay it. There are 116 such people in Connecticut, fifty-four in Louisiana, and twenty-four in Maine, and they are all dead! Measured by these actions, Mr. Bush has a serious seriousness gap. What is he waiting for?

If the next attack is a question, as vice president Dick Cheney has said, of "when" instead of "if," then shouldn't we do everything we can to prevent it? If we are attacked again, will we still tolerate misallocation of resources, bureaucratic infighting, and tax cuts for 232 dead rich people in New Jersey, while vital infrastructure from bridges to tunnels to reservoirs goes undefended and Russian scientists carrying nuclear secrets go uncompensated? Will Norm Mineta, the Transportation Secretary, then be fired for idiocy if he repeats what he said after September 11—that airport screeners will treat an eighty-year-old woman from Short Hills, New Jersey, with no less vigilance than they would an itinerant holy warrior from Saudi Arabia? If a plane is used in another attack, will we then reconceive air travel for an age when the commercial airliner is a potential cruise missile? Will we still leave our southern borders porous and still continue to police our 4,000-mile northern border with only 350 agents? If Disneyland is irradiated by a dirty bomb, one of the scenarios Bill Keller throws out to trouble sleep—how will we then regard the symbolism of President Bush's post 9/11 advice to take the kids there? The President almost certainly won't repeat the schizoid message he gave to the nation in September—go to Disneyland but be aware that it may also be a terrorist destination—should "if" turn to "when."

We were expelled from Disneyland on September 11. That is the Fall in U.S. history. For lifetimes to come, we will not know a day of security from enemy attack on our homeland. The factors that protected us in the past—the ocean moat, non-involvement in the affairs of other peoples, nuclear deterrence—belong to the past. We must rethink national defense for an era of national insecurity. Every dollar spent on yesterday's threat is a dollar subtracted from meeting today's. The choice is not guns or butter. It is Cold War weapons or border guards. It is Donald Rumsfeld or Tom Ridge. It is tax cuts for the dead or protection for the living.

"As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew," Lincoln said—and did. He went from deference to the border states over slavery to transforming a war about an abstraction, the Union, into a war against slavery. Woodrow Wilson had to put aside the peace rhetoric of his campaigns and risk offending the peace wing of his party to counter the threat of German submarines. Franklin Roosevelt had to abandon the reforming thrust of the New Deal to fight and win World War II. Mr. Bush had no mandate after the Supreme Court selected him President. September 11 gave him a mandate. It is the same one he gave to his attorney general just after the attack: Don't let this happen again.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/06/the-expulsion-from-the-magic-kingdom/303159/