The friendly winds of the War on Terror (WOT) are blowing bureaucrats and freshly printed cash into sunny Key West like a hurricane driving flotsam across the Straits of Florida. Where security from terror is concerned, money is no concern.
There’s an excellent example on the north shore of our little island. On the hallowed ground under a legendary watering hole where local heavy hitters once gathered at the corner of the bar, the high rollers of the Department of Homeland Security are building a shrine to the WOT. In the true spirit of Old Key West, the DHS has a free spending style reminiscent of the heady days when the engine of our economy ran on tightly wrapped bales.
According to a report in our local daily, Homeland Security is having an 11,000 square foot headquarters built for its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit. The handful of Cuban refugees who wash ashore most weeks will be well served. DHS will pay around a million a year for the building, more than five times the going rate for similar commercial space. The government lease is a home run for the property owner. Imagine a contract to sell truckloads of $100 toilet seats for the next 15 years. And the owner didn’t even buy the property until after the deal was struck.
Although it’s an appallingly bad deal for the taxpayers, you can’t argue with the “urgent” need for security. The only explanation the public relations guy for the Government Services Administration could come up with was bureaucratic incompetence. He did his best to make bungling sound like a virtue.
He explained that because of special government rules, rules that would be fatuous and absurd in any private organization, what looks like a boondoggle is really saving the taxpayers’ money. If the government owned the land and built the building, he said, politically correct add-ons and bureaucratic fumbling would cost much more than the ridiculously expensive lease. The alternative of using existing government land and buildings on the huge local Navy base would take ten years of interagency squabbling before anything could be done, so that was out.
And besides the Navy base was a mile further from the local airport here on this two-mile by four-mile island. ICE agents spend a lot of time at the airport and might be needed at a moment’s notice. There’s no telling when some swarthy looking baklava salesman might need to be detained or when a reckless granny with a pair of knitting needles might have to be subdued.
The PR man further justified the toilet seat deal with fiscal logic that only a man expecting a government pension could admire. The big financial advantage was that spending a million federal tax dollars a year to rent a five-million dollar building was a good idea because that way the city could collect $38,000 a year in property taxes. It’s like buying a stadium so your buddy will always have a good seat at the ball game. But this kind of reasoning is perfectly logical to an outfit that for months put up $10 an hour baggage checkers in $150 a night hotel rooms — local baggage checkers being incapable of properly pawing through luggage, confiscating nail clippers and feeling up old ladies.
How did an organization that thinks like DHS become responsible for protecting us from terrorists? Simple. All government organizations think that way — like people who want the best because someone else is paying for it. Could outfits that are so very stupid with money be somehow devilishly clever at outwitting terrorists? Let’s hope so.
The waves of borrowed security money that are washing over Key West are just ripples on a vast sea of debt that is rising to secure our safety. Every bit of it will be spent as wisely. According to George II’s 2005 budget recommendations, besides the $27 billion DHS will get this year and the mega billions necessary to nurture democracy in the desert, we will need $6 billion to secure city subways, $3 billion for airports, $1 billion for shipping ports, a whopping $36 billion to train local firefighters to deal with terrorist fires, and another billion or so to train medical teams to treat terrorist inflicted wounds. In a real terrorist emergency we should all be able to hide by diving into the drifting mounds of money that will surround every government building.
We are lucky in one way, however. Terrorists are extremely thin on the ground. Even if we include the 3,000 murders committed on 9/11, an American’s chance of being stung to death by insects still greatly exceeds his chance of dying in a terrorist attack. It has been our great good fortune that our expensive new security agencies are toiling to prevent something that almost never happens anyway.
If terrorists had planned our destruction by bankruptcy and incompetence they couldn’t have done better. All they need to do is blow up a skyscraper once a decade, we’ll take care of the rest. If we continue to react the way we have to the 9/11 attacks, it won’t take us more than a generation to enslave ourselves to an army of bureaucrats and drown ourselves in an ocean of debt.