By Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com

It has been eight months since a man named John Dingell became the puzzled face of safety and security in post-Sept. 11 America. In early January, private security guards stopped Dingell when he tripped metal detectors at Reagan National Airport outside Washington. They took him to a private room and asked him to remove his pants.

The guards chose not to believe him when he explained that he had a steel hip joint and a steel knee brace and steel pins surgically implanted in his ankles — even though John Dingell is 75 years old and has passed through National Airport hundreds of times in the 46 years he has represented Michigan in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he has served longer than any of his colleagues.

Dingell's adventure prompted editorials across the country complaining that security had trumped common sense.

But not everyone agreed — including John Dingell himself, who asked the Transportation Department for an explanation only because he "wanted to be sure that ... I got the same treatment, no better or no worse, than anyone else."

Rights vs. restrictions
Did those guards really go too far? There is no right or wrong answer.

Similarly, there is no definitive answer to the question that is driving newspaper special sections and television news shows as the nation marks the anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and suburban Washington:

Is America safer today?

In a nation founded on principles of individual liberty and distrust of government authority, notions of how much security is adequate must compete with notions of how much security is tolerable. And that is something Americans have yet to sort through. Opinion surveys taken since January consistently depict a country that is about evenly divided on whether measures to protect the nation should be allowed to eclipse certain core civil liberties.

A question for society
Until the public figures out what it wants, the government is acting without a clear sense of what, ultimately, American society will accept. And so, security in post-Sept. 11 America remains very much a work in progress.

In general, "it's silly to say there's been no progress," said Arnold Barnett, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who specializes in aviation security.

But critics see an uncoordinated patchwork of steps to protect Americans in the air and on the ground, many of them significantly incomplete.

The nation's airports, for example, have been ordered to deploy hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of new security equipment. But aviation officials say they cannot install nearly enough giant bag-screening machines to equip the 429 commercial airports the government regulates.

Congress gave the industry until the end of the year to get the job done, but the head of the Federal Aviation Administration told Congress that 2004 was more realistic. Meanwhile, with only four months left in the year, aviation security officials say they have hired fewer than a third of the federal baggage and passenger screeners they need.

Beginning next month, the Justice Department plans to fingerprint and photograph many foreigners when they enter the country. That will create tens of thousands of new documents for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to keep track of, at a time when problems in the agency's record-keeping have brought it enormous criticism.

The INS allowed 15 of the 19 presumed Sept. 11 hijackers into the country on legal travel visas, for example — two of whom were approved for new visas months after they died in the terrorist attacks because the INS lost track of their paperwork. The INS's director quit under fire this summer.

The National Guard was widely praised for its handling of unfamiliar domestic security duties after Sept. 11, when an estimated 20,000 Guard members began patrolling borders, ports and air terminals. But none of the $1.6 billion increase the White House has requested for the Guard's budget next year is earmarked for security duties, and plans for the new Cabinet-level security department do not include the Guard.

No road map for government
Then there is the money. Who should pay for the reforms?

This is an election year in which President Bush would love to see his Republican Party win control of Congress. But while it is true that Bush enjoys the personal approval of the public, it is also true that he inherited historic budget surpluses and now presides over deficits projected to stretch at least four more years.

The new security department could cost as much as $155 billion, economists estimate. At the same time — even as it has already reduced tax receipts by more than $130 billion — the president is adamant that his 10-year tax cut must not be touched.

There is no endless gusher of cash to spend. So until the American people reach a consensus on how to balance security versus freedom, the government keeps one eye on the budget and the other on the lookout for any clue to what might meet with the public's approval.

Is America safer today?

There are 288 million Americans. For now, and for the foreseeable future, there are 288 million potentially different answers.

MSNBC correspondent Alex Johnson was part of the investigative team that produced the special report "SOFT TARGET: How airports became our first line of defense."

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