Monday, December 22, 2003

If you are sleeping easy at night over the federal government’s success at protecting the nation from more mega-terrorist atrocities since the horrors of September 11, read James Bovard’s latest broadside and think again. Mr. Bovard, one of the most trenchant and effective critics of the runaway growth and abuse of big government during the Clinton-Gore years, has now turned his heavy guns on the even greater expansion of government power after 2001.

Theunprecedented scale, ferocity and ambition of the September 11 attacks were a clarion call to the American public and body politic. Here was an enemy who, unlike the Soviet Union through the Cold War, would not be deterred from inflicting enormous casualties upon American civilians in terrorist attacks. Had it not been for the exceptionally rapid response shown by the emergency services of New York City in evacuating the World Trade Center and shutting down the nest of subway stations below and close to it, scores of thousands could easily have died, rather than the 2,800 who did, as former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has pointed out.

The statements of Osama bin Laden and others leave no doubt that if they could inflict nuclear or biological attack with weapons of mass destruction on the American homeland, they would. The need to beef up the powers of America’s domestic security services after the attacks was therefore very real.

However, the United States was established, and has flourished for more than two centuries, on a well-founded distrust of human nature and its inherent tendency to abuse any and all political powers given to it. Mr. Bovard’s new book therefore comes as an important counterweight to the cult of secrecy and big-government empowerment that has run amok over the past two years. And it is a highly significant and weighty contribution to this crucial debate. The author has synthesized and organized a vast amount of information, yet he presents it in an accessible, reader-friendly way. It is rare to read such a well-documented study that flows so smoothly.

Mr. Bovard’s subject matter is anything but light. He deploys overwhelming documentation to prove that the Bush administration should not at all have been taken by surprise when the hijacked airliners hit the World Trade towers and the Pentagon that beautifully sunlit, terrible Tuesday morning. The failures of the federal government he documents were many and systematic. Far from protecting the American people, the very size and complexity of the federal bureaucracies charged to do so left them defenseless.

Reading Mr. Bovard, one is struck with the image of government agencies as gargantuan blind dinosaurs, stumbling over each other helplessly and roaring ever louder to mask their ineptitude.

Mr. Bovard is no more reassuring about the strategy of pouring scores of billions of dollars to beef up airline security and other key areas of homeland defense. The Bush administration’s new Transportation Security Agency, on the contrary, was rapidly assailed — and by conservative Republican critics in Congress at that — as “a monster” whose behavior “has been characterized by arrogance and disregard of the public’s views.”

Some of its incompetent initiatives defy belief. After the TSA produced enormous new bomb-detection machines at airports, each costing $1 million and weighing as much as a minivan, it “warned passengers that bars of chocolate, books, fruitcakes and wheels of cheese could be mistaken for bombs.”

“Terrorismand Tyranny” is a timely, troubling book, exhaustively andimpeccablyresearched and documented. One need not agree with all Mr. Bovard’s conclusions or arguments to welcome it as an important, indeed essential, guide to the complex issues with which we must now grapple. It is difficult to argue with the author’s claim that “the more freedoms Americans lose, the more dangerous government becomes.” Onecanhardlyimagine Thomas Jefferson, James Madison or Patrick Henry disagreeing with that.

Martin Sieff is chief political correspondent for United Press International.

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