Homeland Security Sham:
A West Virginia Parable
Pierre Tristam/Candide's Notebooks, January 4, 2006
The shamelessness of it. The sheer grubbing for it. Look around the nation’s front pages today: Celebration in cities that will get more “anti-terror” dollars, dismay in cities that won’t. Feasting or starving over terror’s pork tenderloins. You’d think cities should be grateful that they’re not considered high on the list of prospective bombings. But here’s the perversion of terror-age America: Cities are either jubilant that they’ve been designated high-risk targets of terrorism, because that means more dollars, more jobs, more shiny riot gear and charcoal-lined chemical suits for the day when they can be put to use. Or else they’re resentful that they’re lower-risk targets, because there’s fewer tenderloins in it for them. There must be a latent, obscene desire in there somewhere, among cities, for the sort of attacks that would give them a chance to shine in time of crisis, a chance to extract heroism out of the rubble, to have a go at another Ground Zero’s marketable potential. So to be downgraded in the lottery of risk, rather than elicit relief, provokes outrage — at least from the Chamber of Commerce types always foraging for the next quick boost to their city’s repute.
Perspective is a natural casualty of war. But this isn’t a war. It’s the constant reenactment of sham combat to the sound and fury of conventional trappings: Exaggerated fears, rabid patriotism, unquestioned submission to homeland security dogma. None of it rallies the nation’s resources (not when you’re cutting taxes every year of the so-called war). None of it ensure Americans’ safety (not when you’re starting yet another war unprovoked and giving terror’s recruiters more advantages than the Pentagon’s). It merely, richly expedites the profiteering. And isn’t that what running government as a business is all about? The answer — the proof — is not just in those headline over homeland security’s dole. It’s also and especially in the other headline of the day, in the 12 dead miners coming out of that mine in West Virginia.
In its crudest but truest terms, the West Virginia mining tragedy — not unlike the space shuttle program’s Challenger and Columbia catastrophes — is an example of corporate dividends at the expense of workers’ safety. As the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward reported, the mine in Sago, W.Va., was a documented disaster zone of safety infractions. Attention for now is focused on the human loss, as it should be. But aside from Ward’s piece, the link isn’t likely to be made between the cost of true safety in day-to-day, working America — in the workplace anywhere, in the mines, in the meat-packing plants, in the rail yards — and the cost of corporate corner-cutting in the name of shareholder demands. In all, 5,703 people were k illed in job-related accidents in 2004 (58 of them in West Virginia). It takes money to pay for government inspectors of workplaces. It takes money and commitment to make the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) be more than a wrist-slapper. But the Bush administration despises regulatory agencies like OSHA and sister agencies like the Mine Safety and Health Administration (to say nothing of the Environmental Protection Agency). It starves them of money and authority, enabling companies working under them to thumb their noses at them, to laugh at thousand-dollar fine after thousand-dollar fine for safety infractions the way millionaire baseball players laugh at thousand-dollar fines for saying “fuck” near a network mike.
In 2004 eight workers at the Sago mine in West Virginia were injured badly enough to be kept off the job for at least a year. The entire year, the company sustained $9,515 in fines — a few weeks’ pay for a single worker. They call that safety regulation. It’s as toothless as a dentured crash-test dummy. The bottom line isn’t safety. It isn’t keeping Americans secure in their job. It isn’t doing what it takes to hold employers accountable for workplace safety. The bottom line is the bottom line. A company’s management usually and easily survives the occasional worker’s death and the more than occasional worker’s injuries. It wouldn’t survive shareholders’ ire as effectively. In that sense, the West Virginia mining tragedy is a parable of Homeland Security America.
And so the flip side of today’s morning headlines — the grubbing and crying over the Department of Homeland Security’s tributes to chosen cities: The Orlando Sentinel, jubilant that Disney pays off once again: “Orlando in Line for Terror Grant.” The San Francisco Chronicle, in disbelief over the rule that twelve Bay Area cities must compete for one grant: “Homeland Security Directive Shocks Local Governments.” The New York Daily News, writing as if 9/11 did, in fact, kill irony: “The good news for New York is the feds say they'll finally dish out more homeland security money based on risk. The bad news is we'll be competing with towns prone to natural disaster.” The solution is in the News’ headline: “N.Y. Eyes Bucking Risk-Fund Formula.” They’re almost celebrating in Seattle. This from the Post-Intelligencer: “Although they like what they heard Tuesday from the Department of Homeland Security, Seattle-area emergency preparedness officials said it's too early to tell whether the latest tweaks in a federal grant program will mean more money for their communities.” Leave it to Joe Lieberman, earliest architect of that monstrosity known as the Department of Homeland Security, to whine over Connecticut’s missing the lottery: “I am deeply disappointed, once again, that Connecticut’s most populous cities will not be eligible to apply for these critical risk-based security grants,” he is quoted as saying in the Hartford Courant, longing, as always, for the days when Connecticut’s military industry could pull in $4 billion a year. Houston, meanwhile, doesn’t think it has a problem. From the Houston Chronicle: “Funding change may benefit Houston.” And so on down the security-industrial complex.
It was clear early on, even as 9/11’s smoke was hazing over Manhattan, that this so-called war on terror would become above all the greatest concentrated war profiteering opportunity since the 1950s (the decade that gave births to such American trademarks as the “military-industrial complex”). So it has been, not only in the United States but wherever Halliburton and its raking likes are contracted to fly the flag of American empire, and with absurd consequences. CBS’ 60 Minutes summed up the absurdities in a report last April ($7.2 million for 13,000 hazard suits in Missouri, $183,000 for the mostly invisible town of Tiptonville, Tenn., which the police department used to buy an all-terrain vehicle and a couple of defibrillators, now used at high school basketball games, etc.) The juxtaposition of today’s stories though, between West Virginia’s avoidable loss and the nation’s schizophrenic howls over the Homeland Security Department’s troth, is as good an illustration as any of the lie at the heart of the government’s promise of safety at all costs. There is no heart for safety where it matters, in day-to-day working America. There’s only a dance between handicapped regulatory agencies and the companies that operate beneath their gaze while lording it over their inspectors.
And there’s only an illusion of safety where the risks of terror are imagined most. Spending money to buy more riot gear won’t stop the next Timothy McVeigh or the next Mohammed Atta. As David Carr wrote in the Atlantic in January 2002, “When one target is shored up, nimble transnational cells that can turn on a dime simply find new bull’s-eyes. Up against those practical realities, homeland security is the national version of the gas mask in the desk drawer — something that lets people feel safer without actually making them so.” The government knows it. But that doesn’t mean there’s no money in it. That’s virtually all there is of substance in it. To a lucky few, the Bush administration and its corporate oligarchy among them, terror-war America has been the best of all possible worlds: Perpetual war for perpetual profits, with a war on regulation and oversight thrown in as a bonus. Today, West Virginia is ground zero in that war. Al-Qaeda is nowhere in sight. The victims are American. The perpetrators are American. The dots are all-American, and yet unconnected.