TCS Daily

Department of Terrifying the Homeland?

By Ben Friedman - February 1, 2005 12:00 AM

Michael Chertoff has his work cut out for him. President Bush's nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security inherits an unwieldy bureaucracy of 22 agencies and 180,000 people with incompatible computer systems, unclear authority, and low morale. But the biggest challenge Chertoff faces is the Department's strategy: it fails to acknowledge that the war on terrorism is - or at least should be -- a war against fear.

Terrorism takes its name not from violence, but from the emotion it provokes. By telling all Americans that they are possible victims of terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security plays into terrorists hands. If we are all afraid of terrorism, we are all terrorists' victims.

The National Strategy For Homeland Security, a document the White House produced in 2002 to guide homeland security, says that terrorists could strike "any time, any place" and then tells Americans to prepare evacuation plans and disaster kits. The same could be said about lightning, but the American government does not prepare everyone to be electrocuted. Terrorism is most likely in particular places -- major cities, airports, sporting events, nuclear facilities etc. But with its color-coded threat system; its website, giving all Americans the same advice about how to prepare for terrorism; and with its warnings for everyone to look out for suspicious activity, the Department too frequently adopts a one size fits all approach to terrorism.

These policies democratize fear by spreading exaggerated threats into every corner of America, needlessly frightening relatively safe people. The Department should instead tell Americans the truth. Terrorists threaten our nation, but those in major cities face more risk than others - and, most importantly, none of us should be afraid.

Most Americans have a miniscule chance of dying from terrorism. In 2001, fifteen times as many Americans died in car accidents as from terrorism. As the political scientist John Mueller points out, deer in the road kill about as many Americans as terrorists. Even if terrorists do far worse than they did on September 11, statistically, Americans will still have far more to worry about from drinking, smoking, and bad diets than Al Qaeda.

This is not to say that our leaders should not lose sleep over coming attacks, especially those involving nuclear weapons. We must relentlessly pursue terrorist organizations, and we must do far more to secure nuclear weapons and stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons technologies.

But it does not follow that everyone should prepare for terrorism. Preparing can create needless fear and is costly. The fact that terrorists could, in theory, strike anywhere does not making defending everywhere wise. The assumption underlying federal first responder grants, however, is that no matter how remote the risk of attack, every American community should be ready to deal with any sort of terrorist attack.

According to Veronique de Rugy of the American Enterprise Institute, homeland security funds going to first responders -- fireman and emergency personnel -- grew from $616 million in fiscal year 2001 to $3.6 billion in fiscal year 2005, a 500 percent increase. A formula written into the USA Patriot act mandates that the Department split 40% of first responder funds equally among states, without regard to population, need, or risk. The Department distributes the other 60% of funds based purely on population. The result of this method is that the less threatened a state is, the more funds it gets, per capita. Today Wyoming receives $35 in per capita homeland security grants, while New York receives $5.

Preparing everywhere for terrorism is counterproductive. In most rural areas, the risk of terrorism is too low to justify the cost of preparation. By combating tiny risks, we take money from places where greater dangers lie. A sensible approach to homeland security would allow more funds to be used on tasks more vital to our safety. The money that goes to emergency responders in low-risk areas could be used to send more armored vehicles to Iraq, to better secure loose nukes in Russia, or to promote the image of the United States abroad, using public diplomacy or foreign aid.

Chertoff should push the Department of Homeland Security to stop trying to abolish risk. Instead, the Department should adopt a risk management strategy. That strategy would have to overturn the formula mandating that states receive a set portion of homeland security funds (and overcome the Senators who defend it in Congress) and would focus spending on places that security professionals deem most threatened. A risk management approach would abandon the idea that all Americans towns need to meet some standard of preparedness for attack.

America needs a homeland security strategy that avoids exaggerating risks. That means getting rid of color-coded threat system,, and highway signs telling commuters to report suspicious activity. The Department of Homeland Security should be frank about what it knows about the likely location and potency of attack and let those in threatened areas decide whether to prepare. The Department should not tell anyone to buy duct tape, gas masks, or to prepare escape routes unless attack is virtually certain.

The Department of Homeland Security's job is to protect, not to frighten. American leaders should never stop pursuing terrorists, but they should guard both the nation and the national psyche. We win the war against terrorists every day that we convince regular Americans to stop worrying about them.

Benjamin Friedman is a graduate student in the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His essay "Leap Before You Look: The Failure of Homeland Security" can be found here.


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