Making Us Safer

Yesterday's tragedy in London should serve as a serious wake-up call. Not because it was a surprise -- private polling shows that more than 80 percent of the American public expects another major attack here in the United States, and whatever you think of the handling of Afghanistan and Iraq, it's clear that al-Qaeda hasn't gone away.

But almost four years after the World Trade Center attack, we have done almost nothing, airline security excepted, to make this country more secure. The Bush administration continues to oppose adequate measures for making other forms of transportation -- like subways, trains and busses -- more secure, in spite of their obviousness as targets. The Senate Appropriations Committee recently proposed cutting Transportation Security Administration grants for rail security from $150 million in 2005 to $100 million in fiscal 2006. The Bush administration wants to consolidate all security spending in one pot, and let rail transport, ports, chemical security and everything else compete for just $600 million, one tenth of the monthly budget for Iraq. Reuters reported yesterday that "the Republican-led Congress appears to have little appetite for a big rail security program."

And transportation is not the only risk. Two days ago the Congressional Research Service reported that 100 chemical plants in 23 states each represent a risk to more than one million people in a worst-case disaster. But what have we done about chemical plant safety?

Left it voluntary.

I want to be very blunt. When the Sierra Club is ahead of the Department of Homeland Security, and when the City Council of the District of Columbia takes the threat of a gas attack on the Capital more seriously than Congress, something is seriously wrong.

A friend reports from London that in the Tube, instead of telling the passengers the truth, everyone was told there had been a power surge and that this was why they were being evacuated. There is a ton of evidence that shows that, in a crisis, telling people the truth minimizes panic and maximizes cooperation. Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center, though, the U.S. government, like the London authorities this week, has consistently acted as if knowledge were of use only to terrorists, rather than trusting the American people.

So I'm going to ask my readers to nominate what they think is the most critical security risk that, if only we were working together in a serious way, we could protect ourselves against. I promise that the Department of Homeland Security will see them all. But so will folks like local officials and citizen watchdogs who, on the basis of the record to date, are more likely to take useful action.