Protect New York, but Don’t Blame Omaha

By Bob Kerrey, president of New School University, was a Democratic senator from Nebraska from 1989 to 2001 and a member of the 9/11 commission (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 06/06/06):

After learning last week that the Department of Homeland Security had cut 40 percent from New York City’s grant to prepare for terrorist or natural disasters, New Yorkers let their anger be known. In addition to asking sharp questions of the federal government’s illogical decision, many focused on why small cities like Omaha were given substantial increases.

Though I now live in New York, I was born and raised in Nebraska and spent much of my adult life there. I was also in Omaha the day after the grants were announced.

It was an uncomfortable moment.

Not content to question the flaws in the department’s formula and peer review process, some New Yorkers went on a verbal rampage against Omaha. No doubt this helped sell newspapers and generated a lot of laughter.

That, however, did not bolster either New York’s reputation or the ability of its Congressional delegation to reverse this error. For whatever else New Yorkers might think or believe about these “hayseeds” who live in a state where “cows outnumber people,” as one newspaper scoffed, I promise you that Nebraskans have very good memories.

However, good memories also mean that Nebraskans are likely to remember how they felt after the 9/11 attacks. They are also likely to remember the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Thus, they are likely to get over these insults and agree that New York City is a primary target for terrorists.

The evidence for this conclusion is overwhelming. It is also the reason those of us who live in the city reacted in horror when the grants were announced. We want to know why our emergency responders are getting less money this year than they received last year. As we wait for those answers, it’s important that we make clear what needs to be done.

First, we must indicate we are willing to pay more for our security. Large federal deficits — caused by tax cuts, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and rising federal health spending — are leaving too little money for domestic security. And, if the total amount allocated to solve this problem is too small and if the risk of that problem exists in all 50 states, then New Yorkers (and all Americans) should agitate for substantial changes in formula levels.

Second, New Yorkers should refuse to contribute to a Congressional candidate who comes to Manhattan for a fund-raiser unless he or she supports the homeland financing levels requested by Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Don’t accept maybe. If candidates can’t give us a direct “yes,” then they should go elsewhere.

New Yorkers already ship $1.25 to the federal government for every dollar we receive in return. We’re not asking for a handout. We just want Washington to give us what we need to keep the city safe.

Third, some funds to defend New York City should be included in the annual defense authorization bill. One reason our grant request was reduced is that we asked for money to cover continuing operations. Homeland grants are not for this purpose. Better for us, then, to try to get these expenses covered in the defense budget.

The impressive collaboration between New York City and federal agencies since 9/11 has made the city safer and better prepared for the next disaster. It has also made it more likely that Washington understands that New Yorkers are shouldering a disproportionate burden for keeping the nation safe. This realization should make it easier to fold some of our expenses into the defense bill.

It’s worth noting that the nation’s second most vulnerable city — Washington — is already defended primarily with federal dollars. It is, therefore, reasonable for us to request the same.

If we ask for the right thing respectfully and relentlessly, I believe we can get what we need from the Congress and the Department of Homeland Security. People in Omaha may think we’re a little rude — but they also know that we’re right.