Many Americans think that homeland security is a joke, and in Boston it's been proved to be a joke. But in light of increasing threats, perhaps we should take homeland security seriously - for a change.
Maybe we need a little homeland-security tough love. That is, tough on those who undermine our safety, and love for our fellow citizens, such that we will do everything to keep them alive and well.
Recently, Boston discovered that two hired pranksters had planted small electrical devices in public places, part of a promotional stunt for a cartoon show.
The pranksters were utterly unapologetic, even defiant, in a subsequent televised news conference. And while Turner Broadcasting agreed to pay $2 million in damages to the city, executives of Turner's Cartoon Network must be thinking that they got a hundred times that amount in free publicity for their show.
Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported Tuesday that when one of the pranksters learned that the Boston bomb squad was removing one of his sparkly devices, he went out and filmed that operation, too - never telling the authorities that the devices were harmless.
And what if an emergency worker had been hurt in dealing with what was, in effect, a false alarm? Well, the punk-provocateur wouldn't have cared. One imagines that even now he is working on a YouTube video in which he will show just how funny and cool he is, in contrast to the square and dull authorities.
So let's hope that both these punks are criminally prosecuted. Such legal action would send a useful signal that even hipsters are not allowed to mess with homeland security.
But in addition, let's remember this unfunny fact: In nine other cities our homeland security personnel didn't even notice the same dopey devices planted in public places. You can bet that terrorists noticed how easy it is to stash an unknown object beneath a bridge.
If the United States were taking homeland security seriously, many things would be handled differently.
Let's consider, for example, the tornado that struck central Florida last week: 20 people were killed, most of them while sleeping.
Many people in the Tornado Belt have an "all hazards radio" permanently tuned to the National Weather Service, an arm of the Commerce Department. These radios, available for $50 or so, can be switched on by a signal from the Weather Service or other authorities. If everyone had such a mechanism, fewer people would be caught unawares by disasters, and fewer people would die.
Jim Hubbell of Whitesboro, Texas, a volunteer storm spotter and assistant emergency coordinator for Grayson County, north of Dallas, has survived enough tornadoes to know the lifesaving value of an early warning. "The radios are great," he declares, "making all the difference between getting hurt and not getting hurt." But the problem, he notes, "has always been getting people to buy them." They also require a little programming and maintenance once in a while.
OK, so it would take some work and effort - and money - to make sure that everyone in this country had a functioning all-hazards radio. But isn't it worth it? Aren't we worth it? In fact, we've learned that it's cheaper to save lives through preventive action, as opposed to after-the-fact rescue and relief.
So here's a thought: If Uncle Sam were really serious about homeland security, he would figure out a way to get the entire country networked into a truly reliable emergency response/ civil defense system. The feds should work with state and local governments, churches and other civic groups to make sure that everyone is wired into the grid. Surely we can love our neighbor at least that much.