The Shield and the Sword

Scripps-Howard News Service 6.12.02
Balint Vazsonyi

Without the slightest doubt, President George W. Bush proposed the organization of a new, cabinet-level, department responsible for homeland security as a reliable shield for the people of this country. Without the slightest doubt, he believes that the circumstances, present and future, require this new instrument with its concentrated power, mobility, and quick response capability to protect Americans against the nightmare scenarios.

And yet, and yet...

During the late 1970s, when Hungary - lone exception in the Soviet domain - was overflowing with food, permitted criticism of the government, and began issuing passports for travel in the West, I commented to a friend about the vastly improved circumstances. He shook his head. "The pen that can terminate a man's existence is the same pen that made you leave back in '56," he said. "Right now, the hand holding it is relatively decent. But the pen is there."

Are we about to create a pen, an instrument, whose existence we might regret?

One of the wonderful differences between Europe and America, never lost on new arrivals, is the glorious insignificance of our Department of the Interior. By contrast, in Europe, the awesome powers wielded by the Ministry of the Interior includes the country's police force, the issuing of all identity documents, even passports.

Americans, reared on a Constitution that ensures domestic tranquility, cannot even conceive of the controls applied to internal order other countries operate. That is one reason other countries are relatively easy to take over.

(Another, some will be annoyed to learn, is that their citizens are not permitted to bear arms.)

Next: during the latter phases of the Clinton presidency, complaints were rampant about executive orders, giving the president awesome powers in case of a national emergency. According to reports, the nation's food and water supply, broadcasting, transport of all kind, and a host of other things come under the total command of the government at a moment's notice.

Fears that a president might declare such an emergency for his own purposes were countered by the argument that implementing the orders might be more difficult than simply issuing them.

But once the new department is set up, staffed and operational, any president will possess an instrument of internal control, should he choose to make use of it.

Should he... What a sexist statement!

Of course, we soon could have a woman president. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has not excluded the possibility of running in 2004. The new department should hum along like a well-oiled engine by then.

A chilling thought.

The nation has had a number of opportunities to look into her eyes. I can relate only one personal experience. The occasion was a state dinner attended by prominent guests. The banquet and the main entertainment over, the presidential pair decided to withdraw. Bidding farewell from the stage, Mrs. Clinton gave a royal wave of her hand. "There's champagne and you can dance now," she said to the assembled staff, er...guests. I still hear the stunned silence.

Imagine such a department available to her.

The shield becomes sword.

Of course, we are in America. Unlike in Europe, people don't even have to register their address with the police. But, bit by bit, we are giving up what used to characterize America. Once a country where people locked neither homes nor cars, we now surround our office buildings with tank traps. Visiting the State Department last week, I had to show identification three times and empty my pockets twice (outside on the street) before showing identification and emptying pockets at the actual checkpoint. And I was escorted out, as well as in.

Once a country where persons in high office considered themselves public servants, we now have flight attendants acting as police officials. And that began long before 9/11. Alas, they focused hysterically on the smoke detector in the lavatory, and seat belts - or we might still see the twin towers in New York.

The president asserted once again that 9/11 could not have been forestalled. Perhaps not by the government. But, horror of horrors, 9/11 might have been forestalled by an intelligent airline agent, communicating with other intelligent airline agents - all acting without the restraints of what we euphemistically call political correctness.

Do we need a new department, or a return to national sanity? Unless we restore our natural instincts of self-preservation, nothing will make a difference.

If offending someone worries us more than being killed, we might as well save the billions for a decent funeral.