There was a time in this country when fighting nuclear threats was a fairly nonpartisan and politically popular thing to do. One might naively have thought that this was because American people and American politicans, while sometimes deaf to minor and medium problems, could rise to the occasion when facing an issue with catastrophic implications. I am now convinced it was actually because we love to have fairly simplistic problems to deal with--one huge enemy in the USSR, and one simple policy of mutually-assured destruction that we could throw a large amounts of cash at without thinking too hard. The kind of cash and effort we threw at that problem--building NORAD, lots of bombs, and a system to track incoming missiles and respond in kind--was a quintessentially suit-and-tie way of dealing with the problem. Money and power were concentrated in a few agencies, the need for cooperation and subtle and continuous policy was minimized, the public was little educated about the process, and accountability was fairly low.
Today we face much messier nuclear threat. It is not as massive--no amount of Al Quaeda wishful thinking and clever scheming is going to acquire the capacity to physically destroy the United States. But it is also more probable--the USSR didn't actually want to destroy us, and they knew that it was all or nothing with them--there was no such thing as a little nuclear scratch. Al Quaeda and its spawn and brethren would love to get their hands on dirty bombs and attack its enemies--including us. You would think there would be no clearer clarion call or higher priority for an administration and its attendant house and congress, obsessed as they are with mentioning 9/11. You would think that a government that went to war half way around the world on the merest whiff of a bearly plausible nuclear threat would rush funding to protect its cities from smaller fry. You would be wrong.
This spring I heard a bone-chilling presentation from Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about the multitude of possible sources that an organization like Al Quaeda could try and grab nuclear material from. Last week he wrote of the miniscule funding
the Bush Administration has given to preventing such thefts. Inspired by this report from the Center for American Progress
, on Monday Matthew Yglesias wrote this excellent column, "Isn't It Ironic?,"
for the American Prospect:
So nuclear terrorism is the ultimate threat, but not so ultimate that it's worth spending money on preventing, inconveniencing the Navy, or overcoming the Bush admnistration's knee-jerk prejudice against treaties. We did, however, find $200 billion to invade Iraq with, over $500 billion for a Medicare prescription drug benefit, and almost $2 trillion worth of tax cuts. It's sort of like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife. Or meeting the arms control treaty of your dreams and then undermining it for no good reason.
If you look at the Department of Homeland Security's homepage, there are three measly links
on the Emergency Preparedness & Response component page. As Fred Kaplan noted in this Slate article
, the Department of Homeland Security wanted to eliminate the Metropolitan Medical Response System, which trains first responders in urban centers to deal with emergencies like a dirty bomb attack. Congress saved the program (pdf of a press release from Rep. Ed Markey, D-MA
), but one wonders why Secretary Tom ridge didn't want to increase
funding for such an important program.
Yet still the president chases the pipe-dream of missile defense, with what Maureen Dowd recently called
"an obsession worthy of literature.". The administration would rather continue pouring money into the secretive and monolithic corporations of the defense industry than go through the trouble of carefully funding firefighters and policeman in dozens of needy cities. It would be helpful if he explained this set of priorities and values instead of extolling his own virtue for giving out hugs at memorial services.