A price worth paying

A price worth paying

Stephen Flynn's recently published book, "America the Vulnerable," says much of what one would expect from him on the subject of international trade and cargo security. The former Coast Guard commander and national security expert has been the most outspoken "hawk" on this subject since Sept. 11.

In his articulate speeches, articles and appearances on television shows such as "Meet the Press" and "60 Minutes," Flynn has provided much of the intellectual foundation for the school of thought that holds that trade security should be much more robust than it is today. "The question is when, not if" terrorists strike the U.S. again, Flynn writes. A main premise of his book, as he further states, is that "each terror-free day in America lulls us further into a false sense of confidence."

On an emotional level, it's hard to argue with that. Americans' sense of security was badly shaken after the attacks, and few Americans would disagree with someone who says that not enough is being done to protect the country. This is why Democrats such as Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have repeatedly attacked the Bush administration, and why President Clinton questioned the level of ocean container inspections in his speech last week at the Democratic National Convention. The Democrats know they need to earn the trust of the nation on issues of national security if John Kerry is to win the presidency in November, so attacks of this kind are likely to continue.

Flynn is not known as a political partisan, but his book seems to embody this kind of fear-based criticism of current trade-security efforts. These can be dangerous if they lead to a wholesale and possibly unnecessary revisiting of the trade-security policies established since Sept. 11.

A thought came to mind the other day. This will look foolish, of course, if the terrorists land another major blow, but here it is anyway: Perhaps "the question is when, not if" needs to be re-evaluated. The question assumes, rightly, that terrorists will attempt to hit us again. They probably already have, but if they did, they failed. And that's the point.

For every day that goes by without another attack, I wonder if America is really being lulled further into a false sense of confidence. I wonder if, to the contrary, that as time passes, we're becoming more organized, better at screening and risk assessment, learning from our mistakes and, ultimately, becoming safer.

That is what the Bush administration wants us to believe. The administration is proud of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the advances in screening and risk assessment achieved by Customs and Border Protection. But the point is to remove the debate from the political context, hyped and distorted as it is by the white-hot presidential race, and look at it realistically.

Flynn gives credit to Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner for creating programs such as the Container Security Initiative and the 24-hour advance-manifest rule. But Flynn's endorsement of ideas such as Global Positioning System sensors on every container to monitor the interior of the box and track it as it moves through the supply chain suggests he believes current strategies must be greatly improved. Bonner himself has suggested that good standing in the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism might require that participants adopt the use of such smart containers, but that hasn't happened yet.

But in the end Flynn makes a valuable point. Every time the idea of smart containers is raised, people in the trade community rightfully ask, "Who's gonna pay?"

Margins in transportation are so low already that ocean carriers, railroads, truckers and others say they can't afford to foot the bill for trade security. Railroads have too little money to make the necessary investments in intermodal capacity - where would they come up with the cash for a high-tech security system?

But I have run into more than one ordinary citizen who says he or she would gladly pay a fee to support trade security. Airline passengers already pay a security fee, and no one complains. Americans cherish their low-priced goods from Wal-Mart, but would the same good-citizen attitude apply to merchandise?

It might. As Flynn observes, "Once they learn of the dangers we face, most of the Americans I meet want to contribute more to our national well-being than simply to continue shopping and traveling."

Peter Tirschwell is editorial director of The Journal of Commerce and Commonwealth Business Media's Magazine Division. He can be reached at (973) 848-7158, or via e-mail at ptirschwell@joc.com.