Low-key, reasonable, and slightly cynical were not the adjectives I expected to use to describe Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff when I started off to the Commonwealth Club speech this morning.
He was just those things.
Chertoff several times himself brought up how the government could make the country much safer, but only by a dramatic disregard for civil liberties. He talked about trade-offs, managed risk, and focusing on the true horrors of terrorism while acknowledging that there were holes which would let some bad things happen. Complete safety, he said, would be possible only if we transformed America into a military state.
He talked about the limits to government response in the initial hours after a natural or man-made disaster. He mentioned that a major earthquake would be “ugly,” and then went into the preparations the Federal, California, and local governments are making to mitigate the ugliness. He urged us to band together locally (a la the San Francisco NERT) program, but stressed self-reliance in a measured way and not with any hand-washing subtext.
The Port of Oakland is the first port in the country to screen 100% of incoming cargo for radiological devices, Chertoff said. He went on to explain a logical progression toward better port security nationwide that sounded both realistic and urgent.
I felt that if I could have just sat down with him for 10 minutes under a cone of silence he could have helped me understand how his department so botched the Katrina response. He must be accepting responsibility for some higher (or lower) screw up, because everything in his presentation today was reality-based, focused, and thoughtful.
When Chertoff first walked into the room, I declined to applaud. At the end I was grinning and clapping. I am still adjusting to loving Big Brother.