Homeland Insecurity (or, How Not to Prepare for the Next Pandemic)

Various federal bureaucracies, each with its own particular and overlapping interests, each with a strong sense of world-class mission and excellence, all directed to prevent the worst from happening.

And yet, somehow, the existential test manages to slip over, under, around, or through the cracks in the system and the agencies are thrown back on their heels in the aftermath of the day they swore we would never see.

These things happen. They’re not supposed to, but they do. And we’re really not good about thinking and talking about them openly in our modern political culture. Clearly, some things are secret; just as clearly, we can’t have everyone looking for bad guys under every rock and around every corner. Yet we do a terrible job of preparing people for the painful but inevitable gaps between “the best in the world” and human fallibility.

The question, then, is what to do in the wake of failure.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, we created several new bureaucracies to cover up the gaps in the old ones — at an enormous cost in scale, complexity, and money. Almost two decades later, “homeland security” — the term, the remit, and the agency — has proliferated across every level of government. And the circa-2,000-person Office of the Director of National Intelligence sits atop the $50 billion, 17-agency non-military intelligence community.

We’ve all learned to live with the minor indignities of the TSA (not to mention the larger ones of Homeland Security’s border agencies, federal police, and acting directorship). Thankfully, we’ve also been spared the horror of further acts of mass international terrorism — but it’s impossible to say whether that’s entirely or even mainly to the credit of the post-9/11 agencies.

The Covid pandemic is still raging, and it has found many parts of the federal health agencies wanting. Even as we strive to get this disease under control, it’s safe to assume that (a) there are other viruses out there that might cause problems for humanity and (b) there’s going to be a huge political and bureaucratic push for “never again.”

Where will that lead us?

My hope is that it won’t mean that the federal health agencies are subjected to the homeland-insecurity treatment. Still less would I want the actual Department of Homeland Security to take pandemic-prevention matters into its own hands, making potential viral spread as elastic and unassailable a rationale for almost anything as preventing terrorism has become.

Somewhere, sometime, someone on earth is going to come down with another nasty cough. It might be sooner than we think, and it could be nastier than this one.

What will we be prepared to do, and who’ll be in charge of doing it, then?