The real threat

You’d think Nathaniel Heatwole was a danger to the public safety, to hear federal officials talk about him.

Heatwole is the young man who’s been in the news this week for hiding box cutters on commercial airplanes to call attention to weak airport security. The feds want to throw the book at him.

They should give him a medal instead. He’s brought much-needed attention to something the government doesn’t want us to know about: Despite all the baggage checking and shoe searching going on, anybody who really wants to smuggle weapons onto airplanes can figure out a way to do so.

It’s ironic that Heatwole’s actions came at the same time as Congress’ approval of another $87 billion in funding for Iraq. That huge amount of money is being spent supposedly to keep America safe from terrorists, while at home security is still dangerously lax.

It’s not just airports. The country’s seaports are also vulnerable. As 60 Minutes reported a few months ago, fewer than 300 of the 16,000 cargo containers entering this country each day are inspected. How easy it would be to smuggle in biological or nuclear weapons.

And, as a report in this month’s Vanity Fair shows, the country’s nuclear-weapons facilities, which store enough plutonium and enriched uranium to make tens of thousands of nuclear bombs, are also vulnerable. In mock attacks designed to test the defenses of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico, commando units of “bad guys” using lasers instead of guns were successful over half the time in penetrating the facility, capturing plutonium and escaping—despite having told defenders months in advance what day they were coming.

Similarly, there are hundreds of chemical facilities that, if attacked, could release toxic chemicals in scenarios that would make the Bhopal disaster look like a picnic. And yet, in response to industry resistance, the administration has done absolutely nothing to make them safer.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has talked and acted tough in the cause of defending America from terrorists. It has curtailed civil liberties and launched two wars at a cost of billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Meanwhile, as a college junior’s exercise in civil disobedience suggests, it has failed at the practical work of protecting the country.