March 2004 | Commentary | Checking In

The Politics of Fear

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Media-amplified hysteria and politicization of homeland security in certain circles may be driving security policies toward unreality. Some believe that the only way to protect good people from bad people is to lock down the good people instead of aggressively sanctioning the bad.

Are we over-emphasizing security at the expense of interdiction in the war on terror? If so, are policy-makers setting unrealistic expectations of total protection with a paper-based approach to homeland security?

Interesting questions, considering their impact on global trade and transportation and, more importantly, the safety of our people.

Just lend an ear to the mainstream media in this election year and you might guess that most policymakers believe that the only prudent course is to secure boats, planes, trains, and everything they carry. It's Fortress America, with all of us under various levels of lockdown, and at the same time making it politically unpopular to address the other side of the equation—interdiction and using the Patriot Act and the military to sanction those who would put us in a post-9/11 prison.

But you can lend an ear to other voices, such as Kenneth Button, director of the Center for Transportation Policy at George Mason University, Va. The post-911 scramble to inject security into the U.S. supply chain has not been undertaken in a rational manner, according to Button. And, much of the current security spending is out of line with the threat, he says. Among the problems facing the rational distribution of security resources is the fact that multiple jurisdictions are involved, both domestic and international, private and public.

Supply chain complexity and difficulty in determining the best way to allocate security resources makes it difficult to achieve proper levels of security coverage, Button says. "We're not getting a rational look at security in the United States right now," he notes, adding that security planners are, in many cases, "running around like headless chickens."

There is also no way to measure the effectiveness of security regimes, Button says. A lack of attack, for instance, could mean prevention or simply an absence of attacks. Button warns that because of the many uncertainties, it is important to consider not just prevention, but containment and remediation should things go wrong. Professor Button made his comments at a recent seminar in Singapore.

It is a dangerous world. We must continue to work hard to achieve the important goals of being partners in homeland security. But we must also not shrink from the costly and painful tasks of interdicting those who would destroy us and our economy. One without the other will fail.

The alternative is to lock down the good guys, and likely fail at complete security in the process, stalling one important economic engine needed to build societies that create opportunities instead of terrorists.

Regulations striking at the core of global commerce and transportation are being framed in this environment. Interested? Get your voice heard, and, of course, vote.

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