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On a path of little security

The first duty of government is to protect its citizens. That’s why, at the local level, few of us gripe about the portion of our tax dollars that pay and equip our police and firefighters. They are, after all, the people who sprint into burning buildings or chase the bad guys while the rest of us flee in the other direction.

If it were only so clear at the national level.

Sept. 11, 2001, was many things, not least of which it was the day it became clear our government was not up to its most essential task. Our bloated military budgets and high-tech wizardry offered the political and financial capitals of the nation no security.

So, after months of wrangling and political jousting, we have the government’s response to its dazzling ineptitude: a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. Twenty-two federal agencies -- everything from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Secret Service and the Customs Service -- will be subsumed by the massive new department, which will employ 170,000 people.

On one level, the new department can be viewed as just so much rearranging of the bureaucratic deck chairs. And it certainly is some of that. Anyone who has spent any time in a large organization knows that one of the key functions of management is to restructure, Dilbertesque style, how the place is organized. It is no coincidence that this “reengineering” (remember that jargon from the management gurus of the 1980s and 1990s?) is carried out under the direction of our first MBA president.

And it’s hard to argue with the notion that something had to be done, that some entity or person should be accountable for protecting us. To the degree that this new department improves efforts to protect Americans and provides that accountability, it is to be welcomed.

But the department does not emerge in a vacuum. The context, as the Bush administration constantly reminds us, is war. Today, it is war against terrorists; tomorrow the enemy is Iraq; the next day, who knows? Perpetual conflict.

The eerily named Department of Homeland Security -- along with the FBI, CIA, Justice Department and the military -- will wield enormous power as we fight this permanent war. In this context, the lesson of history is crystal clear: Power will be abused. To what extent, we don’t yet know. By whom and to what end, it is impossible to predict -- though we’re getting some early clues from the government’s new Office of Information Awareness (see related story, Page 3).

Meanwhile, new generations of U.S.-haters are emerging, ensuring ongoing conflict for our children and our grandchildren.

There’s little security on this path.

War without end. Amen.

National Catholic Reporter, November 29, 2002