Homeland insecurity

Posted: Sep 24, 2002 12:00 AM
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the Bush administration faced many choices. Among the most fundamental was whether to treat terror as a criminal or a foreign policy problem. Having chosen the latter, the Bush administration then sensibly decided to pursue a policy of offense rather than defense. We would, pace John Quincy Adams, "go abroad searching for monsters to destroy." (Only because the monsters had invaded and attacked us first -- and it's virtually certain that Adams would have approved Bush's decision.) But while the focus on offense is very sound, this administration appears to have neglected homeland defense and surrendered to political correctness and timidity in its pursuit. Our airport security system is not serious and everyone knows it. In this, President Bush has apparently given his one Democratic Cabinet member, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, the lead, and Mineta is politically correct down to his fingertips. Whether it is refusing to profile passengers or forbidding pilots to be armed, Mineta has his priorities backward, and so does this administration on these matters. Similarly, on the subject of biological warfare defense, the Bush administration is showing way too much deference to experts on matters that require not expertise but common sense. A few months ago, a federal panel of doctors recommended against immunizing the entire population against smallpox. The doctors noted that a significant number of Americans, for a variety of reasons (cancer, AIDS) have diminished immune systems and would therefore not be eligible to take a vaccine. They were also troubled by the knowledge that in rare cases, the vaccine itself can be deadly, and estimated that if all 280 million Americans were vaccinated, 300 might die. Finally, the panel concluded that the likelihood of biological attack was low and therefore not worth the risk. This recommendation was flimsy and poorly considered, and ought not to have become -- as it has -- the basis for national policy. Doctors are not qualified to assess political and strategic risks -- at least no more qualified than anyone else. They don't have any special insight into the mind of an Al Qaeda terrorist. As for the notion that the immuno-suppressed population is at a disadvantage regarding vaccines, would they not be at less risk if everyone around them were vaccinated? The fear of 300 possible deaths from toxic reactions to the vaccine is very much the American character today. We rubberize our playgrounds, pull food off shelves and deny ourselves needed insecticides (like DDT, which could eliminate the West Nile virus) for fear of small risks. This Republican administration is sounding as paternalistic as the Democrats. How about some free choice? Why not offer the vaccine to Americans as it becomes available, explain the risks (a one in a million chance of dying) and let individuals make the choice themselves. Let each person make his or her own evaluation of the likelihood of a bioterror attack, and then balance that against the known adverse reactions to the vaccine? Instead, the Bush administration is standing by while the bureaucracy concocts a complex system for responding to an outbreak after it happens. At that point, and only then, the government proposes to immunize the entire nation in a matter of days. There are blueprints for using shopping malls and sports arenas (to take advantage of the parking spaces), and they're projecting that even if all air travel were grounded in an emergency, planes carrying vaccine would still fly. The Centers for Disease Control manual runs to nearly 100 pages, and includes advice on hiring translators, dealing with extreme weather and distributing consent forms. Excuse me, but this is ridiculous. It would be impossible and would result in hardship, frayed nerves and accidents of various kinds. Further, it won't work. There is simply no way the federal government is efficient enough to do this. A decade ago, the Clinton administration tried to federalize just one-third of the childhood immunization market. They faced no emergency and were dealing with far smaller numbers. And still, the vaccine the government purchased sat in warehouses without proper refrigeration and was wasted. We'd all prefer not to face the choice of risking an immunization reaction or risking death from biological attack. But reality is what it is, and the government cannot spare us from it. It can, however, make matters much worse -- and that is what the current emergency plan would do.