The Shield and the Sword
Scripps-Howard News Service 6.12.02
Without the slightest doubt, President George W. Bush proposed the
organization of a new, cabinet-level, department responsible for
homeland security as a reliable shield for the people of this country.
Without the slightest doubt, he believes that the circumstances,
present and future, require this new instrument with its concentrated
power, mobility, and quick response capability to protect Americans
against the nightmare scenarios.
And yet, and yet...
During the late 1970s, when Hungary - lone exception in the Soviet
domain - was overflowing with food, permitted criticism of the government,
and began issuing passports for travel in the West, I commented
to a friend about the vastly improved circumstances. He shook his
head. "The pen that can terminate a man's existence is the
same pen that made you leave back in '56," he said. "Right
now, the hand holding it is relatively decent. But the pen is there."
Are we about to create a pen, an instrument, whose existence we
One of the wonderful differences between Europe and America, never
lost on new arrivals, is the glorious insignificance of our Department
of the Interior. By contrast, in Europe, the awesome powers wielded
by the Ministry of the Interior includes the country's police force,
the issuing of all identity documents, even passports.
Americans, reared on a Constitution that ensures domestic tranquility,
cannot even conceive of the controls applied to internal order other
countries operate. That is one reason other countries are relatively
easy to take over.
(Another, some will be annoyed to learn, is that their citizens
are not permitted to bear arms.)
Next: during the latter phases of the Clinton presidency, complaints
were rampant about executive orders, giving the president awesome
powers in case of a national emergency. According to reports, the
nation's food and water supply, broadcasting, transport of all kind,
and a host of other things come under the total command of the government
at a moment's notice.
Fears that a president might declare such an emergency for his
own purposes were countered by the argument that implementing the
orders might be more difficult than simply issuing them.
But once the new department is set up, staffed and operational,
any president will possess an instrument of internal control, should
he choose to make use of it.
Should he... What a sexist statement!
Of course, we soon could have a woman president. Senator Hillary
Rodham Clinton has not excluded the possibility of running in 2004.
The new department should hum along like a well-oiled engine by
A chilling thought.
The nation has had a number of opportunities to look into her eyes.
I can relate only one personal experience. The occasion was a state
dinner attended by prominent guests. The banquet and the main entertainment
over, the presidential pair decided to withdraw. Bidding farewell
from the stage, Mrs. Clinton gave a royal wave of her hand. "There's
champagne and you can dance now," she said to the assembled
staff, er...guests. I still hear the stunned silence.
Imagine such a department available to her.
The shield becomes sword.
Of course, we are in America. Unlike in Europe, people don't even
have to register their address with the police. But, bit by bit,
we are giving up what used to characterize America. Once a country
where people locked neither homes nor cars, we now surround our
office buildings with tank traps. Visiting the State Department
last week, I had to show identification three times and empty my
pockets twice (outside on the street) before showing identification
and emptying pockets at the actual checkpoint. And I was escorted
out, as well as in.
Once a country where persons in high office considered themselves
public servants, we now have flight attendants acting as police
officials. And that began long before 9/11. Alas, they focused hysterically
on the smoke detector in the lavatory, and seat belts - or we might
still see the twin towers in New York.
The president asserted once again that 9/11 could not have been
forestalled. Perhaps not by the government. But, horror of horrors,
9/11 might have been forestalled by an intelligent airline agent,
communicating with other intelligent airline agents - all acting
without the restraints of what we euphemistically call political
Do we need a new department, or a return to national sanity? Unless
we restore our natural instincts of self-preservation, nothing will
make a difference.
If offending someone worries us more than being killed, we might
as well save the billions for a decent funeral.