Why is it that…?

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September 20, 2001 é Why is it that right-wingers seldom if ever critically reflect on their worship of the “free market”, even when the two most recent examples of free market debacles should shake them to the core?

I am referring to the utter folly of entrusting the nation’s airline and nuclear power plants’ security to the private sector. If ever an educator needed didactic tools to teach her students an example of the “fox guarding the chicken coop”, here are two for the ages.

Since airline deregulation took hold in 1978, the flying public has experienced a precipitous decline both in the quality of customer service and reliability of departure and arrival times. The formerly “friendly skies” are ever so unfriendly, and numerous reports have warned not only of delays, overcrowded runways and terminals, but also of the increased possibility of catastrophic mid-air collisions. However, none of these reports commented on what has been obvious to frequent flyers that paid careful attention to American airport security procedures: security is a slipshod operation manned by personnel whose labor power attracts competitive bids from stalwarts of the free market, namely McDonalds and Burger King.

I have heard it said that common sense is “long on the common and short on the sense.” But in this case, common sense and a skeptical perspective of the free market tells one that the airline industry subjected security to the same cost benefit analysis and competitive bidding found in other sectors of the market, e.g., construction, public transportation systems, military procurements. Airliners encouraged competitive bidding and the contracts went to the lowest bidder, naturally. But the lowest bidder did not get to that point without a low-skilled labor pool that in turn guaranteed low-waged, unskilled, undereducated, and unmotivated employees.

The only thing that is not a “un” or an “under” with private sector airport security personnel is their turn over rate. The national average varies between 200 and 400 percent, with Boston’s Logan Airport at 200 percent and Washington DC’s Reagan National Airport at about 90 percent, respectively, according to ABC News.

The fact that four American airliners from three different American airports were hijacked within minutes apart and eventually turned into flying bombs should crumble the edifice of the free market temple in the same manner that the World Trade Center suffered on September 11, 2001. But the airline industry is not alone in the right-wingers’ free market Pantheon. Another god they worship may become our Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction who holds in his left hand the agni, the fire of destruction. Our Shiva sits, waiting to erupt onto the scene with the help of terrorists — whose worldview is rooted in Medieval-obscurantism é that will man another hijacked airliner. The 104 Shivas in our country are the commercial nuclear reactors that dot the landscape.

According to the AP, the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog organization, the 132-member nation International Atomic Energy Agency, opened its annual conference “with calls for tighter security é and admissions that little can be done to shield a nuclear power plant from an airborne assault” (“Tighter security sought”, Miami Herald, 9-18-01, 20A).

The AP reported that most nuclear plants were built during the 1960s and 1970s, “‘and like the World Trade Center, they were designed to withstand only accidental impacts from the smaller aircraft widely used at the time’, IAEA spokesman David Kyd said” (Herald, 9-18-01).

The most disturbing aspect of the report, besides the very existence of these costly, wasteful, environmentally harmful nuclear plants, is that the American nuclear industry seems more concerned with the public relations fallout that could occur as a result of admitting these plants’ vulnerability than with the radioactive fallout should one of these plants become another Chernobyl. So far the nuclear industry has resisted calls to erect sandbag bunkers replete with anti-aircraft guns and AAA batteries. The reason: the industry does not want to unduly alarm the public.

What better use of “homeland defense” troops than to defend our nation’s nuclear reactors against attacks once deemed inconceivable?

The nuclear industry insists that plants can defend against traditional threats, like armed terrorist commandos or car bombs. However, according to retired rear admiral Eugene Carroll, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) own security-testing program, the Operational Safeguards Response Evaluation (OSRE) inspection program, has breached the ramparts in several tests.

According to retired admiral Carroll, OSRE inspection teams posing as terrorist commandos and led by retired Navy SEAL, David Orrik, “succeeded in defeating the security measures [nearly fifty percent of the time], even reaching the central control room on occasion” (“Nuclear Plants Could Be Next Targets of Terrorists”, Eugene Carroll, St. Paul Pioneer Press, 9-18-01).

If such traditional efforts breached security systems in nearly one of every two tests, imagine the industry’s ability to handle a 757 or 767 plunging towards one of its vaunted reactors. Actually, do yourself a favor, don’t imagine it! There’s only so much psyche damage we can handle in a week or so.

However, you can imagine the reckless greed of a nuclear industry that encourages the NRC to proceed with “a pilot program [ironic pun not intended] to allow private reactor operators to conduct their own security evaluations” (Carroll, St. Paul Pioneer Press, 9-18-01). Here again we have a classic example of an ill-founded faith in the private sector. We may sleep comfortably knowing that the American nuclear industry, its ego already battered and bruised by OSRE’s Navy SEAL-led commando-inspection assaults, now will turn to private inspection testers. Perhaps they can hire former airline security personnel.

In his superb, and unfortunately little known book, The Unconscious Civilization (The Free Press, 1997), John Ralston Saul warns against absolutist ideologies. He takes particular aim at the corporatist ideology embraced by the free marketers. The idea that public citizens and public service became passé can be attributed to the same radical free market apostles who also gave us the politics of “anti-politics”, a thinly veiled attack on the Federal government’s regulatory apparatus. The anti-big government crowd sold us the snake oil recipe that contained the elixir that numerous, self-interested parties, each pursuing their selfish interests as if in a vacuum, would produce a public sphere of harmony, prosperity, and safety. Saul tells us that we as a society swallowed this deadly potion.

All of this brings us full circle to my main critique of free marketers’ inability to peer critically into their sacred ideas. Their unwillingness to question underlying free market assumptions that are built on castles of sand is partially responsible for the powdered dust now mixed up with the carnage of twisted steel and pulverized bodies at Manhattan’s Ground Zero.

Mr. Michael Lopez-Calderon taught High School Social Studies in Miami, Florida for seven years until March 2, 2001, when he was asked to leave the Jewish Day school where he had taught for the past five years. Michael was asked to leave for having posted pro-Palestinian comments on Palestine Media Watch’s subscriber-only e-mail. He remains an activist in the Miami area.

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