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Harris Sherline: Is Our Homeland Secure?

We all need to be prepared to take care of ourselves in the event of an attack or disaster

For the most part, I have always been an optimist, generally seeing opportunity in difficult situations. But I must admit that when it comes to homeland security, I tend to be somewhat pessimistic. When I do think about it, I invariably ask myself the following questions: Are we secure? Has our government done enough to make the American homeland safe? Are we doing enough ourselves, as individuals? Is it even possible to make us secure?

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

The Christmas Day attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 en route to Detroit from Amsterdam raises serious questions about just how secure we are. In my judgment, we are definitely not secure.

Not only are we not secure, but it appears that the system that is intended to protect us is broken. Consider the response of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, when asked about the incident: “Do you feel that we are? Does anyone you know really feel the nation is safe from another attack? I don’t know anyone who does when you put the question to them.”

The Bush administration took credit for the fact that we didn’t suffer another major terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001, which makes me wonder what the reaction of the American people will be when it happens again. And it will happen.

The reaction may well be to “throw the bums out.” At this point, it would be the Obama administration at fault. Unfortunately, that probably wouldn’t make much difference.

Every time I hear Napolitano talk about what the government has done or is doing to protect America, I wonder how anyone can actually believe we are adequately protected when we are so plagued by political correctness that it prevents us from even doing something as basic as profiling airline passengers. For eight years after 9/11, we are still not inspecting most of the cargo on airplanes and at our ports, or adequately protecting our water and food supplies, power plants, etc. What about the potential of suicide bombers attacking in such public places as shopping malls? If anything would disrupt our way of life, that certainly would.

Our leaders responded to 9/11 by creating the largest bureaucracy in U.S. history — the Homeland Security Department, with a $55.1 billion budget and more than 200,000 employees.

Just looking at the organization chart is enough to boggle the mind. There are 22 departments organized in five levels of bureaucracy. The major agencies are the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard.

They all report to the secretary of Homeland Security, along with 18 other assorted “secretaries,” officers, directors and the like. There is also a Homeland Security Advisory Council, which provides “advice and makes recommendations to the secretary of Homeland Security.”

It looks like an organizational nightmare, with a span of control that exceeds the ability of any single individual to manage. Just looking at it raises questions. And, as usual, Congress has a hand in managing everything, adding to the complexity and confusion that surrounds the agency’s activities. Furthermore, Napolitano has no training or experience in the field.

We are a long way from being secure. I also believe we can never be completely safe. How on Earth is it possible for us to protect ourselves from every conceivable attempt to attack us, ranging from nuclear to the poisoning of our food and/or water, to attacking our transportation systems, power grids, other major installations and Lord knows what else?

Furthermore, without adequate border security, there can be no homeland security. Listening to the endless arguments about securing our borders, especially with Mexico, it’s obvious that we’re wide open to being infiltrated by our enemies.

Apart from 9/11, the breathtaking scope of Hurricane Katrina underscored the fact that the most important function of government is to protect its citizens.

For the most part, the Homeland Security Department is a top-down structure, with the agencies that make up the department funding a wide variety of programs, including emergency preparedness activities at the state and county levels. However, are we really prepared for major emergencies, such as fires, torrential storms, accidents involving hazardous materials, earthquakes or other natural disasters — in addition to the unthinkable, a terrorist attack or perhaps the overflow consequences of one in a major metropolitan area?

When there is a fire, earthquake, tornado or flood, who’s available to help? We tend to rely on local fire, police or sheriff’s departments, public utilities, agencies such as the American Red Cross, or the National Guard. But what if no one can get to you for two or three days, or a week? What can you do? Are you adequately prepared to tough it out on your own? New Orleans vividly demonstrated that most people are not.

In a major crisis, the reality is that you will probably have to fend for yourself until help arrives — conceivably days, a week or longer. There are simply not enough police, firefighters and emergency personnel to respond to every situation.

Think about how unprepared you may be for an emergency — including everything from fire extinguishers to first-aid kits and CPR training to an adequate supply of food and water to a pre-determined survival plan and escape route for your family, to just plain knowing what to do to protect your home and loved ones and to help your neighbors.

Columnist Thomas Sowell made the following observations in an article about New Orleans and Katrina:

“When all is said and done, government is ultimately just human beings — politicians, judges, bureaucrats. Maybe the reason we are so often disappointed with them is that they have overpromised and we have been gullible enough to believe them.

“Government cannot solve all our problems, even in normal times, much less during a catastrophe of nature that reminds man how little he is, despite all his big talk.

“The most basic function of government, maintaining law and order, breaks down when floods or blackouts paralyze the system.

“During good times or bad, the police cannot police everybody. They can at best control a small segment of society. The vast majority of people have to control themselves.”

If we don’t know what to do in a major emergency, and we expect our local police and firefighters to be the “first responders,” and they are not available, who will be accountable? The Homeland Security Department, state or county government, or a city council? As we have seen with Hurricane Katrina, there will be plenty of blame to go around.

In the final analysis, self-help is inescapable. Think about it. Are you prepared? Do you know what to do if outside help can’t get to you when the next major emergency strikes?

There is another major emergency in your future, and the likelihood that the government — local, state or federal — will be able prevent it or provide 100 percent protection is slim to none. We all need to be prepared to take care of ourselves and to help our neighbors until the situation stabilizes.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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