Archive for May, 2005

A Letter From the Front Lines

I am writing this from the front lines of the war on terror.  It’s difficult being here, trying to get through each day without wondering whether some terrorist has decided that today is a good day for me to die.  I’m currently located about 15 miles from an area that has recently been labeled as the most dangerous two miles in the entire country, a fact that can be extremely unsettling if one chooses to dwell on it.

Compounding the peril of this situation is the inadequate funding and support that we’re receiving from the government.  Our explicit and repeated requests for protective measures that would make us safer go unheeded.

You’re probably thinking, “Don’t worry, soldier.  You’ll be home from Iraq soon.”  The thing is, I’m not a soldier.  I’m not even in Iraq.  I’m just a regular guy living in New Jersey, where terrorism is not just something you see on TV.

Terrorism is a real concern in New Jersey.  September 11th claimed more than 700 New Jersey residents.  For all the talk of chemical weapons and bioterrorism — an abstract notion to many —  it was New Jersey that was the staging point for the first real instance of such an attack.  The anthrax scare originated here, with the tainted packages being dispatched from a post office in Hamilton.

During the 2004 election, exit polls indicated that roughly half of New Jersey voters felt less safe from terrorism than they did in 2000.  Dubya’s perceived edge on terrorism is credited with tightening the race in Jersey by a considerable amount, giving Kerry a modest 7 point victory in a state that Gore took by 16 points in 2000.  This is particularly surprising for a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican president since 1988.

I live in Union County, home to an area that terrorism experts have dubbed “the most dangerous two miles in America.”  David Kocieniewski of the NY Times recently wrote an article that summed up the threat fairly well:

It is the deadliest target in a swath of industrial northern New Jersey that terrorism experts call the most dangerous two miles in America: a chemical plant that processes chlorine gas, so close to Manhattan that the Empire State Building seems to rise up behind its storage tanks.According to federal Environmental Protection Agency records, the plant poses a potentially lethal threat to 12 million people who live within a 14-mile radius.

Yet on a recent Friday afternoon, it remained loosely guarded and accessible. Dozens of trucks and cars drove by within 100 feet of the tanks. A reporter and photographer drove back and forth for five minutes, snapping photos with a camera the size of a large sidearm, then left without being approached.

That chemical plant is just one of dozens of vulnerable sites between Newark Liberty International Airport and Port Elizabeth, which extends two miles to the east. A Congressional study in 2000 by a former Coast Guard commander deemed it the nation’s most enticing environment for terrorists, providing a convenient way to cripple the economy by disrupting major portions of the country’s rail lines, oil storage tanks and refineries, pipelines, air traffic, communications networks and highway system.

You’d like to think that homeland security would be a sobering issue for legislators, jarring them out of their “business as usual” mode of pandering to special interests and vying for pork.  However, as Kocieniewski explains, that’s not the case:

But even those in charge of the effort say the job is incomplete, bogged down by obstacles that are a microcosm of the nation’s struggle against potential terrorist threats.After distributing tens of billions to state and local governments since 9/11, the federal Department of Homeland Security cut New Jersey’s financing this year to about $60 million from $99 million last year. Many security experts have complained that the formula – which provides Montana with three times as much money per capita as New Jersey – is guided more by politics than by the likelihood of an attack.

The private companies that own 80 percent of the most dangerous targets have given varying degrees of cooperation, officials said, and the chemical industry has effectively blocked attempts in Washington to mandate stricter regulations.

As a result, many of the most crucial security tasks are left to local police departments, some of which say they are too understaffed and poorly equipped to mount a proper counterterrorism effort.

The federal Homeland Security Department’s inspector general’s office recently criticized the agency for directing much of its $517 million in port security money to relatively low-risk sites in places like Kentucky and Tennessee, and not giving enough to busy, vulnerable facilities like Port Newark. Although the Port of New York and New Jersey recently received an additional $42 million for counterterrorism efforts, Port Newark lacks the up-to-date equipment now used to search cargo at ports like Hong Kong.

“We put more resources into securing the average large bank in Manhattan than we do for the entire security of Port Newark,” said Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander who is now a security analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations and who conducted the study that first identified this part of North Jersey as the nation’s most terror-prone two miles. “That’s just irresponsible.”

Our local police and counterterrorism agencies do their best to protect us, and their efforts are commendable.  Their charge is yet another unfunded mandate of the Bush Administration.  In Washington, dedicated legislators (such as Sen. Jon Corzine) are fighting to secure the state and its people.  Still, for those of us here on the front lines, the feeling of safety is as elusive as the terrorists themselves.

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