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Greenfield: With port deal dead, do you feel safer?

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst

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CNN's Jeff Greenfield

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WASHINGTON -- Well, I don't know about you, but I feel so much safer now that I know those Dubains -- Dubai-ites? Dubaionians? -- won't be running those American ports after all.

No, it's going to be a strictly all-American operation from now on.

Yes, the folks in charge of checking those gazillions of tons of containerized cargo will be from the good old U.S. of A.:

  • Our nation, whose forces have so vigilantly sealed our borders from illegal immigrants (not counting the 3 or 5 or 10 million or so who managed to make it here);
  • Our nation, whose immigration and customs officials managed to keep out those dangerous agents of Osama bin Laden who intended to wreak murderous havoc on our soil (not counting the 19 who did make it; well, 1 of 20 isn't that bad);
  • Our nation, whose airport security system has ensured that no 84-year-old wheelchair-bound great-grandmother slips past the scrutiny of a system that makes no distinctions based on race, gender, sexual preference, disability, or no-chance-in-hell-this-one's a terrorist;
  • Our nation, whose existing port security system leaves upwards of 95 percent of incoming cargo unchecked, and whose ability to detect radioactive material is, to put it mildly, problematic.
  • Were there real questions about who should run the commercial operations of U.S. ports? Sure. And Dubai's past policies -- one of three nations in the world to recognize Afghanistan's Taliban regime -- could give anyone pause.

    But let's not kid ourselves. What proved fatal to the plan was a potent mix of politics and a longstanding American impulse toward xenophobia, which has existed in tandem with our welcoming hand to others.

    More than 180 years ago, a powerful movement -- the "Know-Nothings" -- organized around hostility to immigrants.

    When we imported Chinese labor to build the railroads in the late 19th century, we also imposed strict limits on immigration.

    We did the same thing to European immigrants in the 20th century. In wartime, we did worse -- deporting hundreds, maybe thousands of foreign-born Americans just after World War I, and locking-up Japanese-Americans in camps during World War II.

    Even in peacetime, it's not hard to trigger Fear of the Foreign. When Japan's economic dominance threatened American power in the 1980s, politicians found it all but impossible to resist a lunge toward protectionism.

    So it's no real surprise that the two parties outdid themselves in competing for the right to attack the port deal with the greatest vigor.

    But I can't help wondering, if something deadly finds its way into the United States through our ports ... who are we going to blame then?

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