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Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2001 / 21 Tishrei, 5762

Bob Greene

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If we need this office,
are we secure? -- YOU can't predict history -- if we didn't believe that before Sept. 11, we ought to believe it now.

But it is safe to predict that, long after the more fiery national rhetoric of the last three weeks has been forgotten, one unambiguous sentence -- spoken by the president of the United States -- will be studied and debated.

The sentence is this one:

"Tonight I announce the creation of a Cabinet-level position reporting directly to me: the Office of Homeland Security."

It sounds like something out of Orwell -- and had any public official proposed such a government office at any other time, there likely would have been immediate objection across the country. The Office of Homeland Security -- it sounds like the kind of place where Big Brother would report for work.

Yet the Office of Homeland Security was not proposed at any other time -- it was proposed, in front of the Congress and an international television audience, by President Bush in the days after the attack on the U.S. by terrorists. And even those who may not have been thrilled by the creation of the new office seemed to be thinking: I don't like this, but what are our alternatives?

If ever a nation had a right to feel insecure, it was the United States in the hours and days following the murderous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And in a land based on civil liberties, there was an immediate sense that to criticize the president too quickly for announcing the formation of this office might not be the right thing to do.

Criticism will almost certainly come later; it is forming already. But the United States -- which for years has depended on the Defense Department (which used to be the War Department) to protect its shores -- for the first time has found itself under attack on the main continent. The Office of Homeland Security sounds different from the Department of Defense because it is different. Put in its most simple terms, the Department of Defense is an operation with its eyes (and guns) aimed, symbolically, outward. The Office of Homeland Security looks inward.

Which tells you everything. Are we overreacting? We already have the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, in addition to the Defense Department. There are all the city and town police forces, and county sheriff's departments, and state patrols. Why the Office of Homeland Security?

You know the answer to that. And the question will be if it endures -- if it becomes a part of the permanent structure of the U.S. government, like the Agriculture Department, or if it does its work and then disbands. Don't bet on the latter -- unless you believe that what happened Sept. 11 was an anomaly, something that could never take place again.

Actually, the security of the homeland, in ways that matter, is in some respects in admirable shape. Security is not always measured in firepower or surveillance. President Bush, soon after the attacks, did something somewhat surprising, something that spoke very well of our nation's sense of true security.

He went to the mosque at the Islamic Center of Washington, stood with Islamic leaders, and told his fellow Americans that they must not take their fears out on innocent American Arabs and Muslims. Of those Americans who had attacked, threatened and insulted Arabs and Muslims, the president of the United States said: "That's not the America I know. That should not and that will not stand in America." The president added: "Islam is peace."

I don't know if there is a record of Franklin D. Roosevelt making a similar visit to Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor; what is remembered most indelibly about the treatment in the U.S. of people of Japanese descent after Dec. 7, 1941, is cruel cartoons, and internment in guarded camps.

So what President Bush did in going to the Islamic Center was quietly magnificent -- and quite American. Whatever happens with the new Office of Homeland Security, the real security of a nation can be found in moments like that. Moments when a president, seeing hints of the worst coming out in people, takes a stand and says: Here is how we look when we are at our best.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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