Safety in a Scary World: What Big Government Is Good for. (Ways & Means)

Article excerpt

It looked so easy. A small number of disciplined men, a few thousand dollars to train pilots, some airplane tickets for dry runs, and a supply of box cutters and pen knives were sufficient to level the World Trade Center, drain a trillion dollars out of the stock market, bring the air-travel industry to its knees, and transform the world's political landscape.

What else is easy? Three weeks after September 11, an inebriated hunter on an ATV shot a hole in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, shutting it down for three days. If one of the pipeline's pumping stations were attacked in the winter, write energy experts Amory and Hunter Lovins, "its 9 million barrels of hot oil could congeal into the world's largest Chapstick," depriving America of 15 percent of its petroleum supply until the summer thaw.

Not only is our infrastructure vulnerable to disruption, but--like jumbo jets--many of its elements can be turned into weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear power plants are the scariest example, but what about liquefied-natural-gas tankers, petroleum refineries, or giant dams? Our chemical plants are, evidently, so defenseless that information about them has been pulled from the Web. But efforts to improve plant security bogged down when some legislators insisted that plants be allowed to "self-assess" their vulnerability. Even an attempt to have airport security conducted by federal officers rather than the lowest-bidding private company ran into trouble. Fear of a new federal bureaucracy, it seems, trumps fear of passenger planes as missiles.

Why are the United States' vital systems so inadequately protected? One reason, of course, is that we have never before suffered a major terrorist attack on our soil. Another is the result of a conscious, coordinated campaign--not by conspirators, but by patriotic Americans whose devotion to an idealized notion of individual liberty leads them to challenge even simple measures to protect the common good.

This essentially libertarian movement has dominated U.S. politics and culture since the Reagan era, and remains strong today, particularly in the Republican Party. Mary Sheila Gall, President Bush's first nominee to head the Consumer Products Safety Commission, has criticized the agency for promoting "a federal Nanny State"--a catch-all term used to ridicule efforts to protect public health, security, and the environment. Seatbelts, bike helmets, trigger locks, organic-food labels, OSHA: All have been deemed evidence, over the years, of the stultifying embrace of the Nanny State.

A government that is strong enough to stop global warming, the nanny watchers warn, is also strong enough to take away our ATVs or lower the speed limit to 50. They love to quote their hero, Ronald Reagan, who said, "Government is the problem, not the solution." Their alternative to the Nanny State is the Nano State: a government too small and weak to forbid the clearcutting of old-growth forests or the poisoning of minority neighborhoods. …