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A dilemma of keeping out the right bad guys

I know I'm sticking my chin out by asking, but am I missing something?

The people in charge of guaranteeing our safety, whose primary function to date has been dishing out massive doses of paranoia, hysteria and repression along with daily reports on the current color of the federal heebie-jeebie mood ring, just got what they wanted.

Congress approved something we can all agree that we need badly: a new bureaucracy, this one with 170,000 employees, to work toward making sure the bad guys don't get us.

It would make you think that our borders are sealed up tighter than a newspaper publisher's purse strings and that the reinforcements have finally arrived to make sure bad people and bad things don't get in.

That would make it difficult to explain how 200 Haitians, undoubtedly exhausted, hungry and dehydrated, slipped into the shallows off Key Biscayne in Miami three weeks ago and scattered across area causeways before police could round them all up.

I'm reasonably sure that all of them were genuine economic refugees desperate for a new life. But their feat makes you wonder how good we would be at keeping a member of al-Qaida from doing the same thing, especially if he chose to come here via Haiti.

Keep in mind that this is a country where the INS not only issued visas to the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, but approved visa renewals for two of them six months after they died in the attacks.

Please note, this isn't the raving of someone terrified of all forms of immigration and convinced that our economy is going to be spoiled by illegal aliens who come here to steal yardwork and busboy jobs from hardworking Americans.

I'm just noting that this is a country that, according to the White House, has 5,525 miles of border with Canada and 1,899 miles with Mexico and a maritime border that includes 95,000 miles of shoreline and navigable waterways.

How good are we going to be, how good can we be at policing that?

Or, let's look at another source of fear.

Governmental agencies and businesses went nuts last year looking for tiny trace amounts of white powder. People refused to open their mail. Office clowns who played games with talcum powder found themselves wearing handcuffs.

We all learned in short order that even microscopic amounts of anthrax spores could, and did, kill people.

I got to a point where I was paranoid about taking talcum powder aboard an airplane.

But consider this.

Despite the best, and very expensive, efforts of thousands of officers from dozens of agencies, 645 metric tons of cocaine left South America headed for the United States in 2000, according to the U.S. Justice Department. An estimated 130 metric tons were seized en route, meaning that about 515 metric tons made it into the country.

We've got people in mail rooms wearing masks and surgical gloves looking for milligrams of powder in Christmas cards, and 515 metric tons of powder, undetected, crosses the borders in a year.

I really don't think I'm mixing apples and oranges here, and I am not trying to mock the (albeit poorly named) Homeland Security Department and the monumental task it faces.

But I wonder, for instance, how much more effective our limited law enforcement resources would be if less time was spent chasing bales of marijuana and bricks of cocaine that are apparently going to get in anyhow, and more time chasing people whose direct and stated intent is to destroy this country.

There is some irony that the ruling wisdom about drugs (and sex, for that matter) being a part of some conspiracy aimed at destroying the country has its roots in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a proven forgery used by the Czarist police to demonize Jews at the turn of the last century, versions of which still abound on right-wing whacko Web sites.

Instead, we are getting told what daily color our concern should be, and assured that an ongoing erosion of civil rights will make us happier and safer.

But maybe it's just me.

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