Security: How Much Is Too Much?

Homeland Security training in Nashville / Army photo by Mark Rankin

The recent killings of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda's deputy show the U.S. and its allies bringing the fight to the enemy. So why do we continue to button up like a five-year old being armored by her mother to face her first blizzard? Defense, which we have been playing robustly since 9/11, is an expensive game. Bad guys – if they really want – will always find a chink in our armor. We've spent billions protecting government buildings. If the terrorists want, they can attack our trains. If we defend the rails, they can attack our schools. Where do we draw the line?

How much have we really gained with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (which, in earlier days, would have simply been branded the Department of Common Sense – locked cockpit doors on commercial airliners? – sheer genius) and the $75 billion a year we now spend on it and its various tentacles? It's nice to see such questions being posed over the weekend.

Kim Murphy in the Los Angeles Times has done a good job of taking out a yardstick and trying to figure out how many additional inches of protection we now have at home:

"The number of people worldwide who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It's basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year," said John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor who has written extensively about the balance between threat and expenditures in fighting terrorism. "So if your chance of being killed by a terrorist in the United States is 1 in 3.5 million, the question is, how much do you want to spend to get that down to 1 in 4.5 million?" he said.

And Robert Hershey, a member of the Society of Professional Engineers, asks same question Sunday in a Washington Post op-ed column that we asked in June: why is the White House, already the most protected residence in the world, gaining extra layers of protection well beyond its black, wrought-iron fence?

With such a solid structure, then, why does the White House need an expanded security perimeter?…This plan contains major deficiencies that are the direct result of federal agencies’ insatiable demands to expand their security perimeters, and it should be scrapped.

Did al Qaeda get lucky on 9/11, drawing to an inside straight that we dealt them? Just as we viewed the Soviets as 10-foot tall members of the Red Army, we view al Qaeda as a crafty corps of super-smart world-changers, instead of the mediocre zealots they are.

Bottom line: the more we hide, the more we shield, the more we lose. Unlike offense, one never knows if one is spending enough on defense. Congress has limp-noodled the issue. It's perfect for the scare-mongers who now occupy the capital. We will eventually realize they are parasites and expunge them.

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