Janet Napolitano, Barack Obama’s secretary of homeland security (a totalitarian-sounding office the United States did very nicely without until 2001), gave a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Wednesday, meant to convince American civil libertarians and security specialists that the country can be kept safe, and neighborly as well.

President Obama, she said, has been very forceful “about seeing the threat of terrorism in all of its complexity, and in bringing all of our resources, not just the federal government, to bear against violent extremism.”

She said, though, that the danger has not diminished in the eight years since 9/11. (A month ago I heard a think-tank expert flatly predict that there will be a major al-Qaida attack on the U.S. this year, “probably nuclear.” I’ve been hearing that from his group since 2003.)

Napolitano recommended that Americans do more to make their counterterror approach “a shared endeavor, to make it more layered, networked and resilient, to make it smarter and more adaptive, and to make sure that as a country, as a nation, we are at the point where we are in a constant state of preparedness and not a state of fear.”

She cited, as good examples to citizens, the alert store clerk who three years ago reported men “trying to duplicate extremist DVDs.” That led the authorities to men planning “to kill American soldiers at the Fort Dix Army base.”

Just last month, she said, a vigilant traveler spotted two employees exchanging an unscreened bag at the Philadelphia airport, and this “ultimately stopped a gun from getting on the plane.”

She advised her listeners to make emergency plans for their families. They can go to the “www.ready.gov” site on the Web or consult their local “America Corps council.” The Homeland Security Department has appointed a “task force” to review its color-coded threat system that has done so much to keep the nation safe. She has recently added “a prominent former computer hacker” to the Homeland Security Advisory Council, to help the department “understand our own weaknesses that could be exploited by our adversaries.”

Eight years after the al-Qaida attacks do Americans need such reassurances? Since 2001, there has been no actual terrorist attack reported inside the United States, much less one involving al-Qaida. Plenty of people have been killed by fellow Americans, ordinarily in old-fashioned ways, during that period — by burglars, holdup men, muggers, drug dealers, drunks on a rampage, in Saturday night shoot-ups, in family troubles, or fooling around with the family guns. More recently the killings have included armed grade-school children shooting their classmates, also mainly an all-American affair.

So far as terrorism is concerned, such episodes as have been disclosed by the government have nearly always seemed farcical affairs, involving guys with a grudge hanging out, usually detected by semiprofessional provocateurs lingering around mosques or Muslim neighborhoods, asking disgruntled guys if they wouldn’t like to blow up the tallest building in America. The guys say, “Sure, where is it, how do we get a bomb, and will you loan us the money to go there?” — and they end up in a federal pen. This is not serious.

Professional estimates are that when the casualties of war in Iraq and Afghanistan are left out, the total number of victims of international terrorism since 2001, including the Trade Tower victims, are about the same as the number being killed by lightning — or the number of Americans being killed these days by people Tweeting on their cell phones while driving.

A well-known estimate in 2005 in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence was that more are killed by severe allergic reaction to peanuts, or bathtub drownings, than by international terrorists.

Terrorism and political violence can be big, big problems today if you live in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan or Iran, or in China if you are member of a non-Han minority like the Uighurs and Tibetans.

The newspapers I read today reported that in the last two days two family barracks of the Spanish Civil Guard, the paramilitary police, have been blown up, presumably by the Basque separatist ETA — which over the years has killed 825 people in Spain. They said the Iraqi government has attacked the Iranian political exile movement the People’s Mujahedeen, which used to be under American protection but has been handed over to the Iraqis.

In Nigeria, sectarian militants have been fighting the army, and 80 people have died and 4,000 have fled. Inhabitants of the Swat Valley in Pakistan are afraid to go home, even though the Taliban has left. The poor people in South Africa’s shantytowns are rioting because nothing has improved for them since the African National Congress took over the government.

There is a lot of need around for homeland security. You’d think America has more than its share. Secretary Napolitano might relax and think of ways to distribute the surplus.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.


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