Taking Terrorism Seriously

TAKING TERRORISM SERIOUSLY….Part 1 of a multi-zillion word story about the trials and tribulations of the Department of Homeland Security is running in the Washington Post today, and a lot of it is pretty much what you’d expect: a huge new agency trying desperately to deal with turf wars, lack of leadership, and budget issues. But they also had to deal with political cronyism, as Tom Ridge and Christine Todd Whitman discovered:

One stark example was the White House’s blockade of a Ridge-supported plan to secure large chemical plants. After Sept. 11, Whitman had worked with Ridge on a modest effort to require high-risk plants ? especially the 123 factories where a toxic release could endanger at least 1 million people ? to enhance security. But industry groups warned Bush political adviser Karl Rove that giving new regulatory power to the Environmental Protection Agency would be a disaster.

“We have a similar set of concerns,” Rove wrote to the president of BP Amoco Chemical Co.

In an interagency meeting shortly before DHS’s birth, White House budget official Philip J. Perry, who also happens to be Cheney’s son-in-law, declared the Ridge-Whitman plan dead.

“Tom and I would just throw our hands up in frustration over that issue,” Whitman recalled.

This is the most infuriating aspect of George Bush’s approach to terrorism: that he treats it as a partisan weapon instead of a genuinely serious business. Chemical plants really are a prime target for terrorists, but Dick Cheney doesn’t want to annoy his corporate pals, so EPA’s plans to address it get shelved. WMD counterproliferation really is important, but it’s not very sexy and doesn’t serve any partisan ends since Democrats support it too. So it’s ignored and underfunded. Detention of enemy combatants when the enemy is an amorphous group like al-Qaeda is a genuinely vexing issue that deserves a serious bipartisan airing, but the Justice Department treats it like a child’s game, inviting barely concealed rage from a conservative judge who thought this was supposed to be life-and-death stuff.

One of the worst results of all this is that because George Bush treats terrorism mostly as a handy partisan club to make Democrats look weak and cement his own support with his corporate base, he’s managed to convince a lot of liberals that the whole thing is just a game. Unfortunately, this is pretty understandable. At this point, I don’t really blame liberals for feeling that terrorism is little more than a Republican bogeyman that’s pulled out whenever the president’s poll numbers are down. After all, that’s pretty much how Republicans treat it.

But it’s not. Osama bin Laden really would like to find a way to kill a whole bunch of us, and we really should all be working to keep that from happening. Maybe someday Karl Rove will figure out that that’s more important than bringing back the glory days of William McKinley and his 30-year Republican reign.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias responds with some good points here.