The Washington Post Column

To Each According to the Risks

Last week the mayors were in town. From Connecticut and Minnesota and Massachusetts they came, prepared to lobby Congress and the White House and the press about their concern, in this age of bone-scraping budget cuts, for their cities. They wanted to talk about the poor. They wanted to talk about schools. Most of all, on the eve of war, they wanted to talk about money for homeland security, which they aren’t getting. One of them — the mayor of Minnetonka, Minn. — said she’s been asked whether the new money that Congress recently promised for firefighters, police officers and other “first responders” was “enough.” Her reply was acidic: “We received zero last year, so more of zero is still zero, right?”

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for mayors, who really do suffer the consequences of federal deficits and state budget disasters. When Medicaid is cut, more of the uninsured wind up in city hospitals. When the administration takes federal money away from “cops on the beat” programs, cities pay the price in higher crime rates. And yet it’s also hard not to wonder, quietly, whether Minnetonka, population 51,301, actually needs funding for homeland security. One stumbles, somehow, asking the mayor about it. One is embarrassed to point out that Minnetonka might not be the best place to spend federal homeland security money. What if a dirty bomb went off at the Minnetonka city hall, after all? One would feel pretty terrible afterward.

In all probability, though, there won’t be a dirty bomb, not in Minnetonka, not in Des Moines, not in Phoenix. And difficult though it is to do so, we will, at some point, have to admit out loud that the probabilities of such an incident happening in any given small city is very low, that funding is very limited and that if we are to provide every fire department in the country with expensive new tools and training, then “homeland security” will quickly turn into a synonym for “waste of taxpayers’ money.”

No one has dared to say this yet, however. Instead, we’ve had an unattractive spat about who is to blame for underfunding first responders. According to Sen. Hillary Clinton, “our people remain vulnerable, nearly as vulnerable as they were before 8:46 a.m. on September 11.” According to the president, Congress diverted much of the $3.5 billion recently mandated for first responders into pet causes. According to congressional leaders, little of that $3.5 billion was actually “new” money anyway: The administration arrived at the figure by eliminating existing programs.

All are right, up to a point. Some of the money really was earmarked for special interests, some of the money really came from other programs, and we really are just as vulnerable, in some senses, as we ever were. But all are also avoiding the broader and more difficult national debate about priorities and risks. Americans have grown accustomed to the idea that the drugs they take are FDA-tested, the food they eat is USDA-certified and the federal government will protect them 100 percent from foreign terrorists. Americans need to understand that the very term “homeland security” is misleadingly reassuring. This is a game of probabilities, not certainties, in which the notion of “security” is a myth.

The case needs to be made bluntly: Funding and training should go to New York, Washington, Los Angeles and a few dozen other cities, as it already has. Money can usefully be spent coordinating the myriad agencies that police the borders, or helping provide security at nuclear facilities, chemical plants and airports. There will never be enough money, however, for the federal government to provide complete security for every power plant, every water treatment facility and every subway system in the country. Let us be even blunter: If there really is a dirty bomb, absolutely nothing that the federal government did in advance will ever have been “enough” anyway.

The need to be prudent isn’t just about budget deficits, either. Even if there were a massive surplus, federal funding for every fire department in the country still wouldn’t make economic sense and still wouldn’t make everyone safe. But the budget deficits will make this harder to say. In the coming weeks, particularly if the war breaks out, you will hear more wails of anguish from the cities that are firing their firefighters for lack of funding, and from the states that cannot afford extra police. Their budget crises are real. “Homeland security” is not the solution to them.