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The Traps of Power
Tim Francis-Wright

The Traps of Power

Presidents, Senators, Representatives, and their staff all fill vitally important jobs, and are all subject to threats that most Americans never have to face. Accordingly, among the perquisites of these jobs is a certain level of security to combat some of those threats. The Secret Service and the Capitol Police protect the President and the federal legislators. Limousines, helicopters, and airplanes are at the disposal of the President as part of his normal duties. One effect of these trappings of power is the insulation of the highest level of government from the rest of the populace.

Recent events, however, illustrate how the highest level of government can become insulated from very real threats to the populace itself. When ordinary Americans are subject to threats that the President and the legislative branch are not, then anger at, and distrust of , the government are logical consequences. The trappings of power can easily become the traps of power.

Air travel provides one example of the insulation of those in power in recent weeks. Once commercial airlines had the authority to resume operations last month, President Bush urged Americans to resume their ordinary activities, including taking commercial flights. On the same day, however, he gave blanket authority to the Air Force to shoot down any civilian airliner than was a threat to cities or military targets. Americans were urged to fly, but the Bush administration thought the risk of hijacking to be high enough to alter its contingency plans.

The existence of these plans is scary enough, but specific actions of the administration added a touch of cynicism. To assure the public of the safety of commercial aviation, nine members of the Bush cabinet, plus former President Bush, flew on scheduled flights on 28 September. Before they did so, however, the Bush administration ensured that a federal air marshal would be on board each of those flights. The special protection accorded these people so outraged Michael Canavan, the FAA official in charge of aviation security, that he resigned in protest. Because the FAA has so few air marshals, he had good reason to order them onto flights that fit the profile of the flights hijacked on 11 September, long-distance flights with typically low numbers of passengers.

By ensuring that air marshals would be on the flights with cabinet members on them, the Bush administration explicitly ensured that its members would be protected and that the rest of the public would be less protected. Normally, the special protection that the Secret Service accords the President does not reduce the protection that police can provide ordinary citizens. But the special use of air marshals reduced the safety that the public could enjoy, solely to increase the security of a few politicians.

The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives has bent over backwards not to pass a bill to increase security at airports. In the wake of the 11 September atrocities, the House has passed a number of bills, including a tax bill that would grant refunds of billions of dollars to corporations such as IBM. But a bill to pay for trained security personnel at airports, a bill that passed unanimously in the Senate on 11 October, has stalled in the House. House Majority Leader Dick Armey has explained that his opposition to the bill is that it would create thousands of federal jobs (and therefore thousands of weekly dues payments to federal unions). President Bush has urged rejection of the bill from the Senate and support for its alternative in the House.

Armey and Bush have conveniently forgotten that the heroes of 11 September, the police officers and firefighters in New York City and Virginia, are unionized government employees. The targets of the airplane that struck the Pentagon are all federal employees. The military forces who are fighting against the Taliban and the al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan are all federal employees. Everyone who works in Dick Armey's office and the White House—including both Armey and Bush—is a federal employee. Being a federal employee cannot be all that bad. The Capitol Police and the Secret Servicem, who protect Armey and Bush, respectively, are federal employees. Why is private security at airports so vital, when the federal protection accorded to the executive and legislative branches is possibly the best protection in the country?

Protection against anthrax is another example of the insulation of those in power. Last week, President Bush made it clear to the press that he did not have anthrax. Apparently, key officials in the White House were at least tested—and possibly dosed with antibiotics— as long ago as shortly after the 11 September attacks. Shortly after anthrax was found in the offices of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, government scientists rigorously tested the Capitol and its offices for signs of anthrax. Hundreds of Congressional staff members underwent screening for anthrax spores. Dozens started antibiotic treatment when they tested positive for exposure. Once anthrax was found in a congressional office, the federal government properly acted to treat anyone in the congressional buildings who might reasonably have come in contact with anthrax spores. Testing key officials in the White House for exposure was prudent, if not really necessary, because officials should take threats against the White House seriously.

What is outrageous about the federal government's response to the mailing of anthrax spores was that the treatment accorded to Congress and its staff members was not accorded to postal workers, at least not until two of them died from inhalation anthrax. At the very least, federal investigators should have given postal workers the same standard of care that they gave congressional staff members. They should have checked for anthrax spores at every postal facility that handled the poisoned letter to Daschle. And they should have tested employees at those postal facilities for anthrax exposure. The New York Times quoted an unnamed Bush official as saying "you can bomb the wrong place in Afghanistan and not take much heat for it. But don't mess up at the post office." Apparently the Bush administration cares more about the reaction of the press than it does about how many people die from its action or inaction.

The attitude of the Bush administration that it deserves special treatment extends even to its foreign policy. On 7 October, the United States started air strikes against the Taliban and the al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan, followed with ground troops on October. Meanwhile, the Israeli government sent tanks and solider into the West Bank, seeking for the terrorists who shot Tourism Minister Rehavan Ze-evi on 17 October. In a chain of events worthy of James Heller, the United States expressed its disapproval of the Israeli actions. It should be hard for the United States to engage in military reprisals against what an alleged terrorist organization and not believe that any other country would ever try the same thing. But Bush and his administration believe that they can do so.

Bush and the Republican leaders in Congress have begun to act as if they were somehow more worthy of protection than Americans in general. They have done so at their own peril. Scholars of history will recall that it was Caesar Augustus who claimed to be primus inter pares (first among equals), in order to justify his newfound power in qhat used to be a republic. Augustus Caesar is scarcely a role model for the leaders of a democracy.

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