Sept. 3, 1996



Rep. Jane Harman, member of Congress, meet Alice Bellamy, member of the cafeteria staff down in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building. The perceptions of these two Capitol Hill women about national security could not be more different.

Harman, a California Democrat who comes from a heavily defense-dependent district, is an ardent supporter of weapons like the $2.2 billion B-2 stealth bomber. In the great paneled and plush-carpeted chamber of the House of Representatives, she has proclaimed, "As a parent, I am convinced that we must field and fully fund the most effective and survivable weapons systems. The most precious resource this country has is our children ... let us choose the best defense for our children and the men and women who will defend them."

Had she heard Rep. Harman's breathless declarations down among the Formica table tops of the Rayburn cafeteria, Alice Bellamy would have regarded them as largely unrelated to the daily reality that she faces.

Bellamy talks about national security in terms of safe streets and jobs for her children. A single mother of five sons, two of whom are with the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, Bellamy has lived in the crime-ridden south-eastern borough of Washington, D.C., for 20 years.

"You hear gunshots four or five times a night. It scares you to death," she confided.

On the night of June 26, she had a premonition and was pacing, unable to sleep. She heard a burst of automatic weapons fire. One of the slugs hit her youngest son, Omar, 21, who was out walking the family dogs. The bullet pierced the back of Omar's thigh, tore upward through muscle and shattered his hip.

Omar has been in the hospital ever since, in a cast with 23 pins holding his slowly healing bones together. From the cartridge cases that littered the street, the police determined that the drive-by shooter had been armed with an AK-47 assault rifle.

Bellamy's feelings are a mixture of personal relief and despair for the country at large. "I'm lucky. Omar's alive, but there are thousands of parents who no longer can see their dead children," she lamented.

In the combat zone that Bellamy's neighborhood has become, B-2 bombers are utterly irrelevant.

Rep. Harman's acute sensitivity to the dangers American aircrews may face in combat is laudable. However, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, American pilots flying conventional aircraft on missions over Iraq experienced in excess of a 99 percent survival rate. So far, Congress has appropriated $44 billion for 20 B-2 bombers on the debatable presumption that stealth "radar camouflage" will raise the safety margin for the aircrews by another 1 percent.

How much extra should be spent on pilot safety, given the lack of domestic public safety? In comparison to the 538 U.S. military personnel killed in various hostile actions overseas since 1980, more than 300,000 American civilians have been the victims of murder and manslaughter here at home.

Imagine what the billions spent on B-2s could have done in terms of a massive program related directly to improving security and restoring sanity in our cities.

The appalling domestic carnage is an index of the deeper relationship between crime and joblessness. America has become a paradox: a nation of unmet basic needs despite its reserve armies of under-employed and unemployed labor, of poverty in the midst of opulence and of pervasive economic uncertainty despite massive military spending.

America's political elite seem more focused on fighting improbable wars overseas than in combating the very real national insecurity here at home. Indeed, there's a bipartisan bidding war going on.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently suggested increasing the B-2 bomber force from 20 to 50 planes, and Vice President Al Gore bragged in an Aug. 21 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars that Clinton intends to spend more on the military at the turn of the century than the Republicans.

Yet, after all those billions of dollars are spent, Alice Bellamy will still be saying, "I never know what I'm going to see when I get off the bus coming home from work."

Al, Newt, Jane: Talk to Alice. In terms of national security, being able to safely walk the dog means a great deal more to her than carpet-bombing the Pentagon with more money.

David Evans is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel.