Failures of Imagination

Dear Karen Hughes,

The results are in, a consensus is forming, we want you onboard.

It appears we hit a nerve last week when we asserted that Homeland isn’t really an American sort of word but a European, or rather Teutonic, sort of word, and should be retired as the name of the government’s new antiterrorism agency. In the past year no one has wanted to make an issue of this when other things, such as whether terrorists planned to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge, seemed more pressing. But if we wait for a perfect time to stop Homeland we’ll never do it. And it must be done, because words matter.

Last week I outlined the arguments against Homeland. Let me add two more. First, the essence of American patriotism is a felt and spoken love for and fidelity to the ideas and ideals our country represents and was invented to advance—freedom, equality, pluralism. “We hold these truths . . .” The word Homeland suggests another kind of patriotism—a vaguely European sort. “We have the best Alps, the most elegant language; we make the best cheese, had the bravest generals.” It summons images of men in spiked helmets lobbing pitchers of beer at outsiders during Oktoberfest.

When you say you love America, you’re not saying our mud is better than the other guy’s mud. And the name of the newest and most important agency in recent history, charged with the crucial task of thwarting terrorism and protecting our nation from weapons of mass destruction be they chemical, biological or nuclear, should reflect this.

Second, the Homeland Security Agency headed by Tom Ridge was not a conspicuous success, and was in fact nightly monologue fodder on Leno and Letterman. So it makes sense, as we create a new agency, to give it a new name. Homeland failed. Start over, make it new, change the title.

*   *   *

To what? The redoubtable Mickey Kaus of, shoulder to shoulder in this battle (even National Public Radio has joined us, making it either bipartisan, nonpartisan or multipartisan), has been collecting names. So have I. Brilliant readers of this column sent brilliant ideas. (I hope you looked at their letters. We got a lot. Almost none supported the use of Homeland.)

As you ready to leave Washington for Texas, Karen, please give the President and his advisers, as your parting gift, three or four of the following suggested names from the Kaus/Noonan list:

  • Department of Domestic Defense, or 3-D
  • Department of Domestic Security, or DDS
  • Department of Interior Security, DIS
  • Department of Federal Safety, DFS
  • Department of Civilian Security, DCS
  • Mainland Defense, MD
  • Department of Mainland Security, DMS
  • Federal Security and Intelligence, FSI
  • Department of American Protection, DAP
  • Homefront Security, HS
  • Department of Security, DS
  • Civil Security, CS
  • Department of Civil Defense, DCD
  • Any one of these would be an improvement on Homeland. As an NPR commentary said last week, “We do live in a world where real enemies mean us real harm. We do have to fight them. We have to defeat them. But in every battle we’ve fought and won our most powerful weapons have always been words. We ought to use the best ones we can find now, which means the ones that sound most like us.”

    One cannot improve on such wisdom.

    A final reason the administration should change the name. If the Republicans don’t do it the Democrats likely will. It is hard to imagine the literate and savvy Sen. Joseph Lieberman or the tactful and shrewd Sen. Diane Feinstein, both involved in congressional efforts to shape the new agency, being linguistically numb to the name of an agency whose creation will figure in their legacies.

    They’ll change it. So beat ‘em to it.

    My best to you. Go write a book on what it means to return to life.


    *   *   *

    Now on to other elements in the issue of our physical security. One senses that slowly but hopefully surely, federal and state governments are finally moving forward on actions to make our people safer in the age of weapons of mass destruction. Your basic citizen, busy living his own life, is still inclined, amazingly enough, to think “the government” is taking care of business. But governments are run by politicians, and politicians respond to pressure. No pressure, no progress.

    Here is an example of a political figure making progress. In New Jersey, Gov. Jim McGreevey has decided the state will distribute potassium iodide pills—that is, radiation-protection pills—to residents who live anywhere near a nuclear power plant. The pills will be free. They are being given to the state itself, appropriately so, by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If the pills are taken either just before or just after exposure to radiation they hinder the thyroid gland’s ability to absorb radioactive iodine.

    This is good. A cheer for Gov. McGreevey. A cheer too, perhaps, for his focus groups. He may have consulted one or two; perhaps they made it clear that they do not disapprove of state leaders making decisions and announcements that are by their nature unpleasant and anxiety-inducing. As focus groups move, so moves the nation.

    Here I will repeat what a Democratic official told me in the late 1990s when I asked him, in a private conversation, why Bill Clinton wasn’t moving to make civil defense and defense against terrorism a great issue of his final term. People will thank him, I said, and if he’s so worried about his legacy this is how to get one. The Democratic official, a charming and intelligent man, shook his head. He agreed with me, he said, but Clinton is driven by the polls, he’ll never do anything that isn’t high in the polls.

    Well, Mr. Clinton got his legacy. But politics is full of Little Clintons, and if our leaders are not pressed to make our population safer they will not do it. It’s up to us.

    It has occurred to me recently that civil defense in America is like being a cancer patient. If you have any friends with cancer, you know they have been forced to become experts on their illness. With so much experimentation going on, with so many swirling changes in the field of cancer research, every protocol, every treatment is debatable. There’s no one sure way to arrest this cancer or that; there are a myriad of possibilities—scores of schools, regimens, theories. More and more, cancer patients are forced to seize the initiative, make the big decisions, study, oversee treatment.

    This, in a way, is where we are on civil defense. We have to do it. We have to think and study on our own. And then we have to push the “doctors,” our political leaders. If we don’t do it, it won’t get done.

    *   *   *

    Which gets us to smallpox. Smallpox as you know is a potent biological weapon that could be used against our country by those who wish us ill. We have known this for a long time. We know also that this virus has the potential to kill thousands, tens of thousands, millions. (When Cortez’s men brought it to Mexico it killed more than three million Aztecs.)

    Why would it be so effective now as a weapon against America? Because, as you know, almost no Americans have been vaccinated against smallpox since 1972. We stopped our national vaccination program because it was thought that smallpox had been eradicated throughout the world. The last known case was reported in Somalia in 1977.

    It happens that I am lucky. One day in grade school I noticed I didn’t have the scar on my arm that everyone else had. When I was in college and hoping to travel abroad, I went to Dr. Miller’s office in Rutherford, N.J., and asked to be vaccinated. He pulled out a needle and gave me the shot.

    I was probably one of the last people vaccinated in America. Lucky me. But my son, born in 1987, was never vaccinated. Were your children? Were you? Not if you’re under 30 you weren’t.

    Unless you’re a medical professional. We’ll get to that later.

    *   *   *

    Last summer, shortly before the attack on America, the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices came out with its study of and recommendations on the smallpox threat. It makes for fascinating reading. It said use of the smallpox virus as a biological weapon would have “substantial public health consequences” but asserted it was “unlikely.” Why unlikely? Because of its “restricted availability.” How did they know terrorists couldn’t get their hands on it? They didn’t say.

    Which was odd. We knew then and know now that there are stores of the smallpox virus in Russia; we don’t know exactly how secure they are, and we have reason to suspect that other nations, including North Korea and Iraq, may have illegal supplies. We know smallpox is highly lethal, and we know it can be spread different ways, including aerosol spray.

    But the CDC panel spoke with the kind of authority doctors seem to get the day they receive their degrees, and they had recommendations.

    They were: If smallpox happens, we should “declare an emergency.” If you see smallpox, you should call the CDC. As to those who become sick, we must “isolate” and “observe” them. “Medical care of more seriously ill smallpox patients would include supportive measures only.” Why? Because currently, “specific therapies with proven treatment effectiveness for clinical smallpox are unavailable.”


    Should we look into that? They didn’t say.

    What they did say, in short, is that there’s no real reason to inoculate the public, and if smallpox is introduced by terrorists, we should make the sick as comfortable as possible and watch them closely as they expire.

    That’s what I call a plan. An idiotic one, but a plan.

    This week the CDC is again studying smallpox, and one hopes this time their report will get a lot of attention. The panel—it’s the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices again—has been charged with advising on whether Americans should be allowed to get the smallpox vaccine if they want it. The New York Times reported Wednesday that the leader of the study, Dr. John Modlin of Dartmouth Medical School, is approaching his work with great concern. What is he concerned about? The Times reports he’s not sure the threat of a biological attack using smallpox is real, or real enough, or likely enough.

    Odd. Just last summer the committee “knew” terrorists probably couldn’t get their hands on smallpox. So they didn’t move forward with a national vaccination program. Now they can’t move forward because they don’t “know” the actual risk of a bio-terror attack.

    It makes me shake my head. Does it make you shake yours?

    No one “knew” a year ago that people shouldn’t work above the 50th floor of the World Trade Center. It was “unlikely” terrorists would slam a jumbo jet into the Pentagon—if indeed anyone thought of the possibility at all. That is the essence of our problem: No one knows.

    No one knows if smallpox will ever be released into America. But if we have the vaccine (and we do; the CDC once announced we don’t, but in March 2002 a drug company found 70 million to 90 million doses of vaccine that had been forgotten in some freezers in Pennsylvania, and since then the Bush administration has bought more) and people want to be vaccinated, and they are told of the dangers—smallpox vaccinations can make some people sick, and historically, as Sen. Bill Frist, a physician, has noted, the vaccine has caused one death for every million people who receive a first time vaccination—and they agree to sign a waiver saying they will not sue if the vaccination’s outcome is unfortunate, then why not make it available?

    Why not let people choose? Why not give them the freedom to protect themselves?

    It seems odd that we’re even debating it. The worst that could happen is that in the next 20 years we are never faced with a smallpox epidemic and so didn’t need to be vaccinated. That’s a pretty good worst case.

    *   *   *

    Right now virtually the only Americans who receive vaccinations against smallpox are medical professionals such as the CDC’s own first-response units. This week the National Academy of Sciences met to discuss smallpox, and asked that local doctors and their staffs be given the vaccine too.

    When I read this I thought, God bless doctors, I love them, and they certainly, as professionals who would be exposed by sick patients, need to be vaccinated. But—there’s a very rude thought coming—when medical professionals band together to press for protection for medical professionals, one thinks of the very human tendency for people to take care of their own. And take care of themselves. It makes me wonder if the members of the CDC immunization advisory group have been vaccinated. Somehow I can’t help but think yes. After all, they’re essential.

    People have a funny way of protecting themselves while they undertake the strenuous task of debating whether other people, common people, nonessential people, ought to be protected.

    People in positions of authority sometimes get like CEOs who complain about the high cost of the company’s medical coverage while seeing to it that the board OK’s payment for the very best and most expensive coverage for the company’s officers and their families.

    I hope the CDC’s advisory board isn’t consciously or unconsciously thinking this way. One hopes they’re being serious, respectful, and thinking imaginatively.

    *   *   *

    The astronaut Frank Borman once said a brilliant thing. He was testifying before Congress on the deaths of the three American astronauts who, in 1967, were incinerated when a fire broke out in the space capsule in which they were training. Congress, rightly concerned, called hearings. When Col. Borman was asked how such a terrible accident could have happened, he could have given many truthful answers. But he chose a broad one of great clarity and meaning. He said, “It was a failure of imagination.” NASA had planned for so many things that could have gone wrong. But they never sat back one night and brainstormed about what would happen in an enclosed, oxygen-drenched environment if a short-circuit created one spark. Which is what started the conflagration.

    “A failure of imagination.” One hopes the CDC is not undergoing such a failure. Their immunization panel seems to be asking for certainties—Yes doctors, we are certain al Qaeda operatives will introduce smallpox into America on Nov. 13, 2003, delivering it by five “suicide bio spreaders” who will arrive in five geographically equidistant airports—in the midst of a crisis that derives its very shape and definition from one fact: uncertainty. The unknown. The merely possible.

    We don’t know what will happen. We must be imaginative, take chances, do our best, protect people. And if that means giving a vaccination to those who want it, give it. Period.