Protecting the nation at any cost has resulted in unnecessary responses

By Gus Bode

The following editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 1:

It was a natural reaction after 9/11: Protect the nation at any cost. But a survey of homeland security projects by Los Angeles Times staff writer Kim Murphy reveals that the “any cost” rationale has resulted in unnecessary and eccentric responses to the possibility of a terrorist act. Congress should block such projects in the future.

For example, Murphy told of a grant for anti-terrorism equipment to a county in Nebraska, which received thousands of dollars for cattle nose leads, halters and electric prods, in case terrorists waged biological warfare against cows. Glendale, Calif., got a $205,000 grant, which it used to purchase a 9-ton BearCat armored vehicle, one of more than 300 deployed across the country. (Officials feared that terrorists might target DreamWorks Animation or the Disney creative campus.) In one case in New York, the connection of a $3 million grant to counter terrorism was a mystery even to the beneficiaries.


It is hard to evaluate the efficacy of security arrangements. Think of the elaborate airport screening by the Transportation Security Administration, because no terrorist act has occurred. Supporters also can always argue that the absence of incidents proves that the system works. (We’re skeptical, though, about the deterrent value of cattle prods.) But the deterrent argument is more plausible in some places than in others. That’s why planners should concentrate on the ‘where’ of security precautions rather than the ‘what.’

The truth is that not all potential terrorist targets are equal. It’s prudent to have elaborate preparations for New York, Washington and even Los Angeles (although a BearCat might not have much utility in a terrorist attack). But grants for homeland security projects in smaller cities or rural or suburban areas seem more like pork than precaution. And it’s no excuse for those communities to say that the BearCats and other high-end equipment can be used for routine police functions. If Congress wants to fund local law enforcement, it knows how to do so. But it shouldn’t characterize such largesse as a response to 9/11.

With the anniversary of those attacks approaching, homeland security is the ultimate sacred cow, which explains why the federal and state governments are spending $75 billion a year on security. But Murphy’s article makes a persuasive case that many of the grants to localities are unnecessary or poorly conceived. Congress and the Department of Homeland Security need to review current grant procedures and target federal funds where they are most needed.

A single terrorist incident can be devastating to large numbers of people, as 9/11 demonstrated. That doesn’t mean the nation needs to be blanketed with state-of-the-art equipment, some of it only tangentially related to terrorism. In homeland security, as in other areas, choices must be made.