Public Service, Regulatory

editor’s notebook

By James T. McKenna | January 1, 2005

Emergency Medical Service, Fire

Renewing the Debate

As we went to press, the ground was being laid for renewed public debate in the United States on homeland security, what it means and on how it can best be achieved.

We wrap up production of Rotor & Wing roughly two weeks before you see it about the first day of the month cited on the cover. (Some of you outside the United States see it much later; we continue to work on resolving that problem.) It’s difficult, almost presumptuous, to predict the focus of public discussions two weeks out, especially those involving the vagaries of the political set in Washington, D.C. Still, I’ll gamble.

At press time, President Bush’s nominee to be the second secretary of Homeland Security had withdrawn his name from consideration a little more than a week after it had been offered to the public.

The nominee, Bernard Kerik, had gained renown in recent years. He was New York City’s police commissioner when terrorists struck that city on September 11, 2001. He was a key aide to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in restoring the confidence of the public in that city and even throughout America. Kerik went to Baghdad to oversee the rebuilding of police forces in Iraq. He then worked vigorously to get Bush re-elected. His professional and political credentials seemed to make him the right man to succeed Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor who took the point on homeland security for Bush after September 11.

But Kerik had problems. He’d employed a nanny who may have been an illegal immigrant and for whom he’d failed to pay Social Security and other taxes. That would not be a positive attribute for a Cabinet member charged with enforcing immigration laws. (Fortunately, for the nanny, she’d left the United States about two weeks before Bush nominated Kerik.) That was the official front story. Others followed in its wake. A civil dispute in New Jersey several years ago apparently led to an arrest warrant for Kerik. He may have had ties to organized crime while in public office in New York. He also may have accepted cash and other gifts during that time.

We’ll leave to coffee breaks and happy hours the question of why a White House that enforces a "laser-like" discipline about maintaining a unified front that leaves no room for mistakes (or at least admitting them) failed to uncover these problems before tapping Kerik for what is arguably the most important domestic job in the Bush administration. Kerik’s embarrassed departure will prompt debate into the New Year about just what homeland security is and who is the best person to achieve it.

The debate will have an immediate focus much more important and substantial than the dissection of political missteps.

On Jan. 20, the United States will conduct the first presidential inauguration since the 2001 terrorist attacks. It will be the first inauguration held with this nation at war in more than 30 years. Bush’s second term will begin with a swearing-in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, a parade, numerous inaugural balls and an assortment of other activities that collectively will form the most tempting target we could offer to Osama bin Laden and his henchmen in Al Qaeda and its affiliates.

The inauguration must be open to public eyes and, to a limited degree, to public attendance. It is essential that, as a showcase of liberty, the United States celebrate liberty in the form of the free election of its leader, unconstrained by the threats of its enemies.

That, of course, is the conundrum of this age. How do we combat those who would destroy our liberty without sacrificing our freedoms in the process? As the inaugural approaches, Americans certainly will debate vigorously the matter of maintaining freedom while fighting freedom’s foes. That is an immense challenge that confronts not just he who succeeds Tom Ridge, but every person devoted to freedom and liberty.

Aviators by our nature are so devoted. We take to the air to slip the bonds of earth, and we pity those who don’t follow. We are, as a group, keen to protect our freedom and the nation under whose flag we enjoy them.

Therefore, the renewed public debate on homeland security offers an opportunity to focus at least part of the debate on the role helicopters should play in protecting this nation and its citizenry at home.

It seems obvious that rotorcraft will play a key role in responding to any disaster that befalls the United States. We have seen this again and again. When a hurricane, wildfire or flood strikes, one of the first things leaders do is survey the afflicted region by helicopter.

When terrorists strike us again (and most experts agree it is a matter of when, not if), roads may be jammed or disrupted. Airports will be too far from the victims who need help. Rotorcraft will provide one of the few means of bringing aid to those victims and transporting those in the worst shape to more effective care.

Homeland security officials have focused correctly on higher priority problems since 2001. Many remain to be tackled. But the time is now to build helicopters into the emergency-response plans of this nation.

A key step in that direction would be recognition that helicopters need places to land in a disaster, and that everyone is safer and better off if they can do so at prepared sites. Heliports and helipads have been vanishing from the American landscape. Today, they must be considered vital elements in our homeland-security infrastructure, with plans adopted for the preservation of existing ones and the widespread construction of new ones for use in an emergency.

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