How Soccer Moms Became Security Moms

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The war on terrorism is two wars, one for men and one for women. The guys' war is special forces on horseback, video-game bombing runs against comic-strip evildoers. It dominates the headlines and the federal budget. Women are not squeamish about the use of force — pollsters suggest they're more interested in the war on terrorism than in any other foreign policy issue in recent history — but they tend to have a different priority: protection of hearth and home against the next terrorist attack.

This concern is practical, defensive and not nearly so exciting as zapping an al-Qaeda leader with a Hellfire missile. It goes under the dreadful name of homeland security — and it has the further disadvantage of inducing feelings of utter helplessness. Guys don't do helplessness very well; they do action.

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The latest upgrade to a "high" level of terrorism alert, announced after authorities picked up rising chatter about attacks against U.S. targets, had a certain inevitability. CIA Director George Tenet has been predicting, for months, a probable terrorist attack if we go to war with Iraq. Nearly half the American women polled in October by the Gallup Organization say they believe they or someone in their family will soon be victims of an attack (about a third of men do too). But polls don't convey the intensity of these fears. "When I was out campaigning last fall, this was all women wanted to talk about," says Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. "Not schools, not prescription drugs. It was 'What are you doing to protect my kids against terrorists?' Soccer moms are security moms now."

Democrats, in a typically garish display of ineptitude, allowed the issue to slip away in 2002. They blocked the Department of Homeland Security — which they had proposed in the first place — because the Republicans wanted to loosen union rules governing hiring and firing. Biden believes this stubbornness cut into his party's usual advantage with women and cost it the election. The Democrats, of course, succumbed immediately thereafter: the Department of Homeland Security was established. But not very much security has come of it. Indeed, Budget Director Mitchell Daniels blurted the real Bush strategy last week: "There is not enough money in the galaxy to protect ... every American against every conceivable threat that every hateful fanatic in the world might conjure up. So the real essence of homeland security is going to be, No. 1, go after terror where it lives."

This is a mortally male way of looking at the problem. There probably isn't enough money in the galaxy to hunt down every Muslim fanatic who wants to blow himself up for Allah, either. But we're giving it a try. Shouldn't we also try to be sure that cities like New York and Washington are prepared to deal with biological and chemical attacks; that the major ports — like Long Beach, Calif.--are protected; that nuclear-power plants and oil refineries and chemical plants are guarded? Apparently, there has been precious little progress on any of these fronts. "The Administration just hasn't made the commitment to homeland security that it has to national security," Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who is not a guy, told me last week. "They're not focused on it the same way they are on making the case against Iraq. A statement like Daniels' suggests they're abdicating on the primary responsibility of government — protecting the safety of the American people right now. It's like saying that crime will always be with us, so there's no use in putting more police officers on the street."

The White House argues that it has increased homeland-security funds significantly. That's true, sort of: there are all those uniformed people at airports; there are larger stocks of vaccines and antibiotics. More money has gone to border patrol and — just recently — to port security. But there's an element of three-card monte here: money slops from pot to pot, and the totals remain unchanged. On the ground, the situation is largely unchanged too. Nicholas Scoppetta, the New York City fire commissioner, says the Federal Government replaced all 91 fire trucks destroyed on Sept. 11, but it hasn't helped very much since. "We have a budget crisis in the city, and we need $275 million worth of equipment and training to deal with a bio-or chemical-terror event. But there's a cap of only $750,000 that we can get from the Federal Government for 'first responder' money. Obviously, some cities are more likely targets than others. But the government doesn't recognize that."

In a way, we were lucky on Sept. 11: the most serious attack occurred in the one American place — downtown Manhattan — where cops and fire fighters are routinely trained to deal with catastrophe. Next time we might not be so lucky. Next time it might be anthrax in Las Vegas or a dirty bomb in Disney World. Next time the first response may be utter chaos. The unthinkable looms, and we seem incapable of thinking about it.