The Visa Waiver Program: Our Achilles’ Mouth

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) have slammed ($) DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff for certifying the expansion of the Visa Waiver program. Under the expansion, citizens of 34 countries that satisfy certain security and immigration-related requirements do not have to obtain visas to enter the United States for up to 90 days. The seven newly added countries are: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, the Republic of Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia.

In criticizing Chertoff and the Visa Waiver Program, Senator Feinstein is quoted by National Journal saying, “I continue to believe that the visa waiver program is our Achilles’ heel.”

Achilles is the mythical fighter in Greek and Roman poetry who was killed by an arrow striking his heel where there was a void in his armor. It’s a totally inappropriate metaphor for the security of the United States against terrorism.

The United States is a large and vibrant nation, and our security is nothing like the security of a lone fighter. A lone fighter may die if his armor fails, but there is no realistic strike against our body politic that could do us in. (Never mind what terrorists and their fear-monger allies concoct in their heads.)

The United States is too large and strong to be taken down by anything any terrorist could execute, and our country is too capable of self-repair. (This all assumes that ‘leaders’ like Feinstein don’t attack the mechanisms of self-repair - the nation’s vital organs of freedom, prosperity, and decentralized power - in the wake of any attack).

The error in Senator Feinstein’s thinking is significant because it drives the expectation that any harm coming to the country from terrorists is potentially fatal. This falsehood drives a zero-risk attitude about terrorism that is ultimately self-destructive. Excessive security around our trade and travel will hinder it and deny us its benefits. We hurt ourselves - shoot ourselves in the foot, as it were - if the costs imposed by security measures are greater than the risks they avert.

Restricting travel from countries in the Visa Waiver Program is like Achilles putting armor on his mouth. Doing so forecloses the possibility of being struck by an arrow in the mouth, yes, but it also makes it harder to breath and impossible to eat.

Security is hard, and metaphors like “Achilles’ heel” don’t help people understand the problems.

Secretary Chertoff has done the right thing by starting to re-open the country to trade and tourism. He should be commended rather than skewered. Senators Feinstein and Lieberman are wrong.