Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2001/ 2 Tishrei 5762

Wesley Pruden

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Destroying America
to save America -- NOT every new danger to America comes out of the Arabian nights. There's a caution in the debris of September 11 for George W. Bush.

The young president must beware of taking the advice of his security men as the last word, well-intentioned though they no doubt are. The single-mindedness that makes good security men makes them lousy guardians of the nation's most cherished values.

Most of us are willing to submit, cheerfully if only reluctantly, to certain inhibitions, if not restrictions, on our civil liberties. But only if the inhibitions are kept to a minimum and made temporary. It's the essence of Americanism to make eternal and unrelenting warfare on the easy assumption that civil liberties must disappear if America is to be made safe. This is not true, and if it were, this would no longer be America.

There's political peril as well for George W. if he succumbs to the temptation of that easy assumption. He listened to the security men on September 11 and returned to Washington via Louisiana and Nebraska, to the consternation of political aides who understood that the frightened nation needed him here. He finally listened to his own instincts and got back to the White House just in time. A leader asking for sacrifice must be wary of taking advice from security aides with the instincts of cypress stumps. Most Americans are suspicious of Republican captains of business, anyway, devoted as many of them are to chauffeured cars and travel by private jets.

We all want the president to be protected, but given their head, the president's security men would execute contingency plans to close everything east of the Rockies, to lock down not only Washington, but the entire Atlantic coast to avoid the risks that the rest of us are told are now expected of us. Hints that the security agents want to close Reagan National Airport permanently are chilling, but not surprising. The Secret Service used the Oklahoma City bombing as the excuse to close Pennsylvania Avenue when it was not necessary and turn it into a parking lot for their fleet of monster SUVs, and in the present climate they could, if the president is not paying close attention, get by with closing the entire District.

"I can't say that [Reagan National Airport] is being closed permanently," Norman Mineta, the secretary of transportation, who would be taken to Andrews Air Force Base in a motorcade if not a helicopter, told The Washington Post. "Scheduled operations of the airlines, they will have to depart to the south or arrive to the south." This was a trial balloon to test public outrage, if any. Mr. Mineta further knows that this is a restriction the airlines cannot accept; it is a sign of the times that the government is even willing to consider shutting the nation's capital off from air travel. Mr. Mineta later congratulated himself and his department for having "successfully restored operations within our national air system," as if the shuttered Reagan National Airport were in another hemisphere.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who also travels by motorcade or helicopter, argues that forcing Washington tourists and business travelers to use the airports at Baltimore and Dulles would give his fighter planes a better chance to shoot down a plane aimed at the Pentagon or the White House, though it is clear enough that a plane from Dulles could wreak mayhem just as easily as a plane from Reagan National. Mr. Rumsfeld might consider stationing his fighters at Bolling Air Force Base if he thinks scrambling fighters must be a consideration.

But this gets security demands exactly backwards. We ought to take the precautions necessary to make air travel safe for those of us who may not get to airports by motorcade and who don't fly in private jetliners. Instead of submitting to the whims and demands of the security experts, who may or may not be capable of taking every consideration into account, the president should call in the experts and tell them what he thinks is appropriate, and let them accommodate their concerns to his.

In the present superheated moment, some government officials may be too frightened to question security arrangements, and their constituents too terrified to object lest objection be taken as churlish, or even "un-American." But the heat and passion of the present moment will subside, and what looks reasonable today will look irrational and foolish later.

Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, that most cherished American civil liberty, during the Civil War, enabling the authorities to arrest good Americans who might or might not be guilty of anything, and hold them indefinitely without charge. Destroying the village to save it is never a good idea. George W. should remember that fear and fatigue makes cowards of us all.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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