“It would be time to start to get acquainted with some of the challenges.”
-- Michael Chertoff,
Homeland Security director
Dear Mr. Chertoff:
Amen. Leaving aside the quality of your English, I want you to know that I entirely agree with your statement of March 9 and am completely in sync with your goal. The "challenges" now facing our nation and the world are exactly what we need to get acquainted with, although -- no offense to you -- I think it's past time we did. And I'm not just talking about "bird flu," as you were at your news conference in Washington.
No, I'm talking about something larger than an avian-borne illness, however dreadful that might turn out to be. I'm talking about the ongoing horror of the reign of your boss, George W. Bush, the man who put you in power and left you alone with the keys. You're even beginning to sound like him, I'm afraid, using the same kind of rambling, obfuscating language that says nothing of importance, but does now and then serve to reassure at least part of a bewildered population. It's called "fast talk," Mr. Chertoff, and it works only for a while.
As an example, when you issued last week's dire warnings about bird flu, you sounded just like the president when he talks about "terror," "the terrorists" and "democracy on the march." You seemed determined to scare the bejeezus out of us, while simultaneously insisting that everything's going to be hunky-dory if we just sit back, pay our bills on time, and let the big boys handle it.
"I can't predict," you declared (immediately begging the question of why you can't), "but I certainly have to say that we should be prepared for the possibility that at some point in the next few months, a wild fowl will come over the migratory pathway and will be infected." But "we keep a lot of our poultry business indoors," you went on, "so we don't have the kind of situation that a lot of countries have, where there's a lot of mixing of wild fowl and domestic fowl."
That's a lot of "a lots," Mr. Chertoff, and while you urged us to react to this bird-flu business "with alertness and with care, but not with panic," the damage was done: We're already panicked, and your closing words did nothing to relieve our fears: "If we get a wild bird or even a domestic chicken that gets infected with avian flu," you said, "we're going to be able to deal with it because we have got a lot of experience with that."
Well, forgive me for saying it, Mr. Chertoff, but we don't have any experience with that at all -- not yet -- and the dismal record of your department's preparedness for disaster, both natural and manufactured, is plain to everyone. I refer, of course, to last year's hurricanes in the Gulf, but not only to those. After all, we're dealing with an administration that inflicts terror on the world, wrecks the environment to keep the oil giants happy, allows the pharmaceutical industry to run riot with pricing, thinks AIDS can be halted through "abstinence programs," and won't even acknowledge the eye-popping consequences of global warming, which only a toddler could fail to miss.
So it doesn't help to be told, "We've dealt with these kinds of issues before, similar issues. We actually are working on a very specific plan to deal with this." Your plan is so specific that its details can't be revealed, and I'm not really confident that you'll know how to "deal with it" when those infected chickens get loose.
You shouldn't even have the job you've got, I think, because you aren't qualified for it. I suppose this doesn't bother you, as you're working for a man -- a crony and a tool for corporate interests -- who isn't qualified for his job, either. As Lewis Lapham wrote recently in Harper's, calling for Bush's impeachment: "We have before us in the White House a thief who steals the country's good name and reputation for his private interest and personal use; a liar who seeks to instill in the American people a state of fear; a televangelist who engages the United States in a never-ending crusade against all the world's evil, a wastrel who squanders a vast sum of the nation's wealth on what turns out to be a recruiting drive certain to multiply the host of our enemies."
We all know, Mr. Chertoff -- and you know it, too -- that Bush doesn't give a damn how many people die of bird flu, any more than he cares how many die in the Middle East, as long as the profits keep on pumping. Maybe you've heard the little joke going around, which says that Bush is so concerned about bird flu he's decided to bomb the Canary Islands. If you haven't, well … have a laugh on me.
In closing, please remember that before September 11, 2001, there was no such thing in the USA as a "Department of Homeland Security." There wasn't even such a thing as a "Homeland" in reference to America, an idea we used to reserve for foreign dictatorships -- several of which, faced with catastrophe and disaster, have since become better democracies than our own.
Good luck in all your future endeavors.
Peter Kurth is the author of international bestselling books including: Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson, Isadora: A Sensational Life, and a biography of the anti-fascist journalist Dorothy Thompson, American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson. His essays have appeared in Salon, Vanity Fair, New York Times Book Review, and many others. Peter lives in Burlington, Vermont. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at: www.peterkurth.com/.
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