- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Here's a question that's not especially pleasant to think about: Where should the new Department of Homeland Security be located? And no, I'm not asking whether it should be off Independence Avenue or off Constitution Avenue, but rather, whether it should be in Washington at all.

Now, if you asked Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia where the new department should be quartered, there's every reason to think he would say, West Virginia. After all, he has long been suspected of harboring a secret plan to move the nation's capital from Washington to his home state, and if you have ever driven on the very, very fine highways of West Virginia, you know that the infrastructure is there. But maybe this time, there's substance behind this old joke about the senator's mastery of constituent-friendly, pork-barrel spending.

The problem boils down to this: Let's assume the Department of Homeland Security is serious business, as it looks to be. We'll say that the new department will be to the protection of the territory of the United States what the Pentagon is to projecting American power abroad the real thing, the number you call. And not, say, what the Department of Education is to the teaching of American children. The new department really will be in charge of derailing, as best it can, the extremely vicious and determined characters out there who mean us harm.

I reckon that for those selfsame bad guys, that makes the Homeland Security building Target No. 3 or 4 in Washington, behind the White House, the Capitol and possibly the Pentagon (but probably ahead of it). In fact, given the laugh Osama bin Laden enjoyed on the videotape when he described the twin towers falling, he and his successors might find a certain extra thrill in hitting the very Homeland Security Department. One might, therefore, wish to consider situating it in the most defensible location possible, and that might or might not be on the Mall (or even in Northern Virginia or suburban Maryland).

But that's not the real reason to think about moving it out of town. The real reason is the "Doomsday scenario." Suppose the bad guys do get their hands on a nuclear weapon not a "dirty nuke" but the genuine article, the sort of weapon that could wipe out a city, killing 100,000 people and spreading radiation that renders the environs uninhabitable. The reason we are fighting the war in which we find ourselves is that we think that if they get such a device, they will use it. And if they do, Washington must be reckoned to rank fairly high on the target list for the disruption such an attack would have on the operation of the national government. (I occasionally have morbid arguments with New York friends about who's No. 1.)

The question then becomes whether it would be more sensible to disperse the functions of the federal government rather than to keep them as closely combined as they are in one area. And for starters, the Homeland Security Department. In the event a catastrophic attack on the nation's capital comes to pass, we will, of course, be forced to conclude that the department was not successful in its prevention mission in that case. But this is not to say that it will be any less essential in trying to thwart future attacks.

The destruction of the national capital would not, after all, be "game over" for the United States of America, the occasion of the installation of an Islamic Republic in its place notwithstanding the hopes of those who fantasize about it. The American social fabric is quite densely woven, and while such an event would be a horrible tear requiring a huge amount of reweaving, the cloth would not unravel.

There are things to be done now that would probably make the reweaving easier. One of them is to think about where the targets are (national capital, financial center) and to devise redundancies to minimize disruption in the event of disaster.

And to answer the question with which I began, no, I think the Department of Homeland Security ought to be right smack in the middle of Washington. It ought to be conspicuous, too. Maybe a giant pyramid. Because I think that when we build it, we ought to have in mind that we are building something that will stand forever, in order to reinforce in our minds the importance of the mission of the department itself.

It is not time to disperse, to relegate to the modalities of antiquity "national capitals" and "financial centers." If it ever is, we'll know, and we'll act accordingly. And we can certainly help ourselves by trying to think through this and many other eventualities besides. But for now, I'm in more of a mood to stick around and fight.

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