Wednesday, February 21 , 2018, 10:37 am | Fair 58º


Diane Dimond: When Is the Homeland Secure Enough?

Readers of this column know I spend a considerable amount of time dissecting what's wrong with our crime and justice system. But during this season of giving thanks for the positive things in life, let's pause to express thanksgiving for the fact that our No. 1 national worry — falling victim to another devastating terror attack — did not come to pass.

Improving national security has been "the" top priority since 9/11, and the fact that we haven't had another major terror attack on U.S. soil should be a comfort to us all. It has been because, in large part, of our awakened awareness (and acceptance) that there are factions in the world that would like to kill us all and destroy America. We've thrown everything we can at trying to insulate ourselves from the madness.

I was in New York during the 9/11 attacks. I smelled the acrid air in downtown Manhattan still lingering days after the planes obliterated the Twin Towers. I saw the zombie-like stares of citizens going about their routine while trying to absorb the enormity of what had happened. All sense of security was gone after that awful day. I never want to feel that sense of utter helplessness again.

Twelve years later, I'm thankful that America has adopted a whole new way of looking at our nation's safety. Now, when we see something — we say something. We have voluntarily given up portions of our privacy to make sure terrorists trying to navigate among us will be identified before they can do harm. Law enforcement is more attuned now to the extremist's way of thinking and operating. Over the last decade, the Homeland Security Department has won budgets that topped a half-trillion dollars — $589 billion by my calculation — money earmarked to help keep us safe.

I'm thankful that as a nation we have that money to spend to make ourselves more secure. But I would not be a good citizen if I failed to ask the question — do we really have to keep spending upward of $60 billion on homeland security every year? And, for how many more years does that level of spending continue?

Let's look at some facts.

The government's Worldwide Incidents Tracking System reports that the total number of global terror attacks has dropped almost 30 percent since 2007 — according to the latest figures available (from 2011) of the 13,288 people killed in terror attacks, only 17 were U.S. citizens. The year before that there were 15 Americans killed. The WITS report says those numbers are comparable to the annual number of us who are crushed to death by falling televisions or other furniture. (Thanks to Noozhawk reader Daniel Petry for calling my attention to this report.)

"This is not to diminish the real — albeit shrinking — threat of terrorism, or to minimize the loss and suffering of the 13,000 killed and over 45,000 injured around the world," the WITS report states. "For Americans, however, it should emphasize that an irrational fear of terrorism is both unwarranted and a poor basis for public policy decisions."

The more recent acts of terror are occurring in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Somalia. Sadly, the overwhelming majority of the causalities — even when the target is an American-run installation — are local Muslims, not Americans.

Besides the 2012 tragedy at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were killed and four others injured, we've done a pretty stellar job at protecting ourselves both at home and at foreign posts.

So, what's the projected year in which we can begin to scale back our homeland security spending? I know it isn't routine to take away money from a government agency, but hasn't the more than a half-trillion dollars already built us the security structure we need? It seems that at some time we might be able to consider a maintenance-level budget that keeps the security wheels rolling without adding expensive new accoutrements.

I don't pretend to have all the answers to the questions I pose here, but I fret that no one in Washington seems to be asking them. Every year we just throw more money at DHS — and a host of other government agencies and programs — without talking about long-term strategies. When is enough, enough? I fear the answer is: never.

From Washington we continue to hear politically tinged fear-mongering from both sides of the aisle. Republicans have a tough guy image to uphold and Democrats don't dare be perceived as being weak on national defense.

No one whose job it is to argue forever-larger Homeland Security budgets acknowledges that we haven't had a terrorist death in America in 12 years. No one mentions that al-Qaeda got lucky when we were less prepared in 2001 and is as diminished today as we are more secure. In hushed, conspiratorial terms, politicians, DHS and military officials continue to tell us the terror threat is very, very real and, well ... just leave it to them; they'll make sure we're safe.

This is not to say we shouldn't continue to be vigilant here at home (specifically at our border crossings) and, especially, abroad. If terror cells are allowed to flourish over there, they will attempt to export their violence here to the United States, no doubt.

I'm thankful that we have security experts in this country who have gotten us to this much safer and more secure spot. I'd feel better if they'd reach a point where they admit we've got a good strong national security organization in place.

At that point, maybe we could start diverting a few billion dollars to other worthy programs.

Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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