Complacency and survival

Posted: Sep 07, 2005 12:00 AM

Putting aside, for the moment only, which individuals are guilty of malfeasance in office, it is undeniable that the system America established for disaster relief failed miserably last week -- and thousands of Americans died because of it.

 In varying degrees, the responsibility for the calamity runs from the president of the United States, to state and local officials, to bureaucrats, to individual citizens of the Gulf who were able to but didn't evacuate, to current and prior presidents and Congresses who failed to fund projects, to the media prior to the event, which failed to adequately chastise politicians and inform the public of the coming danger.

 While officials high and low must -- and will -- be held accountable for their share of the fault, the big lesson learned is that the American system, with all its wealth, capacity, checks and balances, and vigorous free speech, failed to avoid the disaster.

 Many individuals shouted loudly, in advance (sometimes for years), about the coming danger, but one can distill America's overall, collective failure to a number of misjudgments.

 Collectively, the country: 1) failed to listen to credible warnings, 2) assumed that our good luck would continue unabated, 3) failed to adequately assess the magnitude and likelihood of the danger, and 4) permitted the compelling pressures and benefits of business as usual to drive from its mind a serious consideration of a radical, bad change from the status quo.

 In short, we were complacent. Actually preparing -- and paying for -- prevention or protection from a likely calamitous event was so appalling that we simply ignored it. Psychologists call it denial. The news calls it 10,000 or more dead Americans.

 Many commentators, and members of the public, have quickly noted that if emergency services are so rotten for a hurricane or flood, what does this say about our preparations for terrorist attacks in the future. They rightly ask what the federal government has been doing these last four years since Sept. 11.

 These thoughts about the terrorist threat have been troubling me for some time, as my regular readers and viewers are aware. And by chance, my book on this topic, "The West's Last Chance" (Regnery Publishing), is to be published this weekend, Sept. 11. But the danger of muddled thinking and preparation for the terrorist threat goes far beyond even the major responsibilities and failures of FEMA.

 Because, as heartbreaking, appalling and disgraceful as this event covering an area the size of Kansas is, it is merely a warning, writ small, of the danger facing the entire country (indeed, our entire Western civilization) if we continue to face the Islamist threat with the same complacency with which we have faced the threat to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

 Complacency is easy to spot after the fact. Today, we are all indignant with the complacency of our governments concerning the conditions in New Orleans. And yet, how many of us, honestly, had given a moment's thought to this until sometime last Tuesday morning? Perhaps we assumed our governments were handling such matters? We were wrong.

 We Americans are proud of our self-reliance. But today, that self-reliance requires each citizen to think for himself or herself about other dangers, such as the Islamist terrorist threat, and to inquire whether our government is complacent or seized with a sense of urgency to protect America.

 I happen to think that regarding the Islamist threat, President Bush has shown more concern and provided more action than most of politicians and journalists. But even the president's actions and thoughts are very dangerously short of what is needed. As much as he has done, it still falls within the category of complacency if one seriously thinks about the threat.

 The mortal danger we face comes not merely from Osama bin Laden and a few thousand terrorists. Rather, we are confronted with the Islamic world -- one-fifth of mankind -- in turmoil and insurgent as it has not been in at least 500 (if not 1,500) years.

 We don't yet know whether this passion has touched 1 percent, 10 percent or 50 percent of over a billion souls. But combined with the sudden and untimely availability of weapons of mass destruction to any sufficiently determined large group of people -- and facilitated by the dangerously interconnected globalized world -- the threat to us all must be as urgently dealt with today, as New Orleans should have been last week and last year and last decade.

 I argue that across the board -- from cargo containers searched, to Arab translators hired, to borders guarded, to domestic and foreign intelligence collected, to rational scrutiny of Arab and Muslim young men, to political correctness snubbed, to the size of our military, to our (and Europe's) willingness to defend our culture from Islamist intimidation, to our international diplomacy -- we remain as complacent and exposed to mortal threat today as were the poor dead souls of New Orleans last week.

 But at least we, the still-living, have been given a providential warning.