Up in the air

Up in the air

Must every issue be politicized? Do we really expect our country to address our intractable problems when our public officials measure every new crisis and challenge as an opportunity to score political points?

The attempted bombing of Flight 253 in Detroit exposed new vulnerabilities in our system for protecting air travelers. After initial miscues, the Obama administration has pledged to see what went wrong and how the system can be shored up to prevent similar breaches — and uncover new and different ones.

Airline safety is not just a matter of “getting tough on terrorism.” As the Bush administration understood during the first seven years of the Transportation Security Administration’s existence and as the Obama administration is learning, protecting travelers involves a number of trade-offs. How much inconvenience and cost are Americans willing to absorb for the extra measures of protection they may provide? How many freedoms are Americans willing to sacrifice in return for marginal security improvements and peace of mind? People talk blithely about basing our security system on Israel’s, but that ignores the relative size of our population compared to Israel’s, the sheer number of entry points into the United States, and our highly mobile nation’s craving for fast, cheap, convenient travel.

These aren’t Democratic or Republican issues. But some opportunistic lawmakers reduce the homeland security issue to a partisan debate, implicating the administration’s entire foreign policy in what is really a question about American culture. Some of the same critics who accuse the White House of “appeasing” terrorists turn tail when the talk turns to detaining Guantanamo prisoners in Illinois under super-maximum security conditions. In other words, Americans need the will to fight — but not where it might frighten voters. Or we have the power to protect ourselves — but not from prisoners in our very own detention facilities.

The truth is that the Homeland Security bureaucracy has always been bloated and unwieldy, from its founding under Bush until today. Changes must be made — as must hard political choices. But making these choices will be much harder if the only thing our politicians can talk about is each other’s weaknesses. They need instead to discuss homeland security from a position of strength, and with the confidence that together we can do better.

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