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The money defense shield: a little political honesty here, please. (Commentary).

A missile defense shield would not have stopped the hijacked planes. A hundred dollars worth of knives and box cutters, available at any hardware store, would have overcome the administration's $200 billion proposed system. Add the conspirators' flight training, airline tickets, and living expenses, and the budget to murder 7,000 innocent people would total a bit more, but Bush's proposed system would still not have saved a single life. If he rams it through in the wake of this ghastly round of vengeance, it will benefit only the weapons producers who've spent more than $40 million in the past two years on campaign contributions and lobbying.

A group of Lockheed Martin employees essentially acknowledged this several years ago, when I was giving a talk at their Missile and Space Division in Sunnyvale, California. The company had invited me to discuss my book on the values of current students--their future employees. When students feel that the world is corrupt and can't change, I said, they often point to the political clout of weapons companies, citing corporate bailouts, pork barrel contracts, and military systems that are useless but still make millions. The students were beginning to believe, I said, that political access comes only when you give at the door.

Since the average American household now pays more than $200 each year to finance Lockheed Martin's government contracts, I challenged the audience to question their corporate culture and not assume that just because a contract provided money and jobs, it automatically served a greater common good. I specifically questioned the company's missile defense systems. A man in the audience quickly jumped in to defend the company's role in developing them.

Then one of his colleagues spoke up. "Let's get real," he said. "We all know that if anyone ever attacks America, the bomb is going to be delivered by a suitcase, a car, or a truck, or in a boat. It's not going to come from a missile, because you can track where a missile comes from and retaliate. We all know that we're lobbying for these programs because they make us money. We don't care whether they'll ever work, or even be useful. We care that the dollars come our way."

I'M NOT SAYING that all who embrace the National Missile Defense proposals do so for venal reasons. Some do believe in it, all the more after the ghastly attacks that took 7,000 lives. Building an invincible technological shield has been a core dream of the political Right since Reagan's first Star Wars plans, albeit a dream spearheaded by think tanks that defense companies have lavishly supported.

As an engineer who produced plutonium for nuclear warheads at Washington's mammoth Hanford complex once told me, "It's not our job to decide whether or not we need more warheads. We leave that to the men who know best in Washington, D.C. Our job is just to make the machines work and do that as best we can." In the case of the Star Wars systems, we've spent $45 billion on Star Wars and $95 billion on total missile defense efforts since Reagan embraced the idea, with little beyond failed tests to show for it.

Yet let's leave aside the endless reasons why National Missile Defense will never work. Leave aside all the ways that--even if it did--it would only undermine hard-won arms control treaties, further destabilize global politics, move us back toward nuclear confrontation, and squander more than $200 billion of resources that could otherwise provide health care, hire teachers, rebuild our communities, protect our environment, or maybe, dare we say, address the cries of the voiceless and desperate who spoke so ruthlessly and destructively in turning civilian aircraft into flying bombs. Leave aside its potential to militarize the heavens in the service of political and military dominance here on earth.

These issues are real and troubling. But to address them we first need the political honesty, like the Lockheed Martin employee who spoke out, to acknowledge that this entire proposal may be largely about political payback, even if it's now rushed through in a war fever crisis. The true shield it's designed to create would not protect people and communities. But it would protect the massive profits of the companies that build it--whatever the costs to the rest of us.

Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time (St Martin's Press; A version of this commentary appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.
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Title Annotation:defense systems, United States
Author:Loeb, Paul Rogat
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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