The War on Complacency

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff is worried that we are letting our guard down. In the current issue of the Armed Forces Journal, he writes: “Among the security challenges America faces in the future, there is none greater than the problem of complacency.”

Some would call that good news. All the threats that we are told to fear — Iran, EMP pulses in the atmosphere, hackers, rusty Russian ships sailing to Venezuela, Bill Ayers — are apparently less worrisome than our failure to worry sufficiently about them. Doesn’t that mean we’re safe? Can we have a parade?

But note the Catch-22. That thought is itself the trouble. Safety leads you to think that you’re safe, which leaves you vulnerable. Then they get you. Safety is fleeting because it allows its own destruction. That’s some catch.

If complacency is the problem, then those who argue that we are safer than people like Michael Chertoff say are part of the threat.

I am particularly guilty. I have promoted complacency in the face of terrorism:

Terrorists, who get their name from an emotion, are psychological warriors. They make fear. By telling Americans in every corner of the nation to plan for attack and stay eternally alert, we deliver the terrorists’ message, at least to those still listening to their government’s warnings. If combating terrorists is war, it is primarily a psychological one, where the stakes are as much the American psyche as safety alone.

Victory is the return to normalcy, not for the intelligence agencies and the FBI, but for the man in the street. Victory is persuading — or permitting — regular Americans not to be afraid. Conventional pundits of homeland security worry that the public will become complacent. We should worry that it won’t.

Before they take me away, I want to clarify my position. I am only for some complacency.

For example, Secretary Chertoff is complacent about many dangers that worry me. His article sings the praises of US-VISIT, the program where we take the fingerprints of nearly all foreigners legally entering the United States. He is complacent about the threat of treating immigrants and tourists — who support our economy, enliven our universities, and start many of our most successful companies — like criminals. The article boasts about DHS’s Improvised Explosive Device Awareness campaign but is complacent about the cost of preventing the use of a weapon that has never been used in the United States. Chertoff mentions Project Bioshield, but he is complacent about the danger that our efforts to combat bioweapons are themselves heightening the risk of attack by spreading knowledge of the feared technology. And he is complacent about the danger that spending tens of billions to combat bioterrorism takes resources from efforts to fight diseases that kill infinitely more Americans (infinite because we are dividing by zero in most years) .

Elsewhere, Chertoff called terrorism a “significant existential threat” — existential was apparently an insufficient qualifier. He evidently remains complacent about the danger of that sort of threat inflation.