House Zealots Block Anti-Terror Efforts

Whenever an obscure professor complains about the war against the Taliban, an alarm is sounded from certain quarters about the enemy within, the supposed disloyalty of academics and the uncertain patriotism of anybody who lacks enthusiasm for military action. But citizens peaceably exercising their right to dissent-no matter how mistaken-are no menace to national security.

The real menace is posed by some of the country’s most powerful politicians, who remain enthralled by a defunct ideology and engorged with corporate campaign contributions.

The ideology is right-wing extremism, characterized by an aversion to active government, financed by corporate special interests and personified by the likes of Tom DeLay and Dick Armey. Using their authority to stifle swift federal action, Republican Congressional leaders are daily demonstrating how intellectually unfit they are to cope with the current crisis. (At least that’s what they had been doing until they fled the Capitol for safer precincts.)

Improving airport security is among the most pressing tasks of the United States government, and it didn’t take long for the Senate to cast an extraordinary unanimous vote in favor of federalizing most of those functions. Such quick, united action on a controversial matter is almost unknown in that body, where both pride and philosophy tend to preclude unanimity. But the bill that passed without a single nay in the Senate has been hog-tied in the House of Representatives for weeks because Messrs. DeLay and Armey cannot rely on members of their own caucus to vote against it.

Having realized that popular sentiment strongly supports the Senate position, the two Texas ‘wingers predictably called upon corporate enforcers to muscle their colleagues. On Oct. 21, according to The Washington Post, Mr. DeLay “summoned nearly 20 lobbyists from the airline and airport security industries to the basement of the Capitol.” There he instructed them to urge members to reject the Senate bill in favor of his own legislation, which would mandate the continued employment of private security firms under federal scrutiny. When they balked, his deputy reminded the lobbyists how rapidly the House leadership had rammed through the outrageous $15 billion bailout last month.

Among those present at Mr. DeLay’s closed meeting were representatives of the newly organized Aviation Security Association, a lobbying outfit formed by the companies which have so badly botched these responsibilities and now fear losing their lucrative airport contracts. Presumably nobody had the poor taste to mention the frightening federal review of Argenbright Security, the country’s largest airport-screening contractor. Even after Argenbright was found guilty in federal court of hiring convicted felons to screen baggage at Philadelphia International Airport, and even after the disaster of Sept. 11, investigators for the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration found the company in violation of federal regulations at 14 airports this month. One passenger at Dulles Airport in Washington got past the Argenbright screeners with a concealed pocketknife on Oct. 12 (just nine days before Mr. DeLay’s lobbyist pep rally). Immigration investigators found that seven Argenbright screeners at Dallas–Fort Worth Airport were illegally working in the United States.

The Argenbright case poses conceptual difficulties for those who persist in arguing the absolute superiority of privatization-unless, like the House G.O.P. bosses, they remain hypnotized by soft-money checks and the latest handout from the Heritage Foundation. It’s hard to say which of these influences is worse; but in combination, they threaten to forestall not just airport-security improvements, but many other urgent measures to protect public health and safety.

Consider the issue of money-laundering by terrorist networks such as Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization. Until Sept. 11, the Bush administration had resisted international efforts to crack down on offshore-banking centers that facilitate the secret movement of illicit funding around the world. Despite continued opposition from the banking lobby, the White House shifted toward a saner view as New York’s own financial center lay in smoking ruins. But Time magazine reports that Messrs. DeLay and Armey, with support from right-wing think tanks and banking lobbyists, “thwarted efforts to include an anti-money-laundering bill” in the recent anti-terrorist legislative package. If liberals were caught doing anything similar, they would be accused quite reasonably of giving comfort to the nation’s enemies.

The point is not, however, to denigrate the patriotism of the right. It is simply to suggest that slavish worship of the market and demonization of government are damaging to the national interest. There are no “free-market” solutions to the weaknesses of our financial, transportation and public-health systems that can so easily be exploited by our enemies. Thoughtful conservatives like John McCain and the editors of The Weekly Standard are able to grasp this quite obvious fact. The American people appear to understand this, too. Those who have sworn to defend them should open their minds or step aside.