If you're inclined to support the president on taking military action against Iraq but your gut is uneasy about this war, take heart: Your gut is right. The uneasiness you feel is not about our strength abroad -- the might of the U.S. military, once unleashed, will no doubt oust Saddam Hussein and vanquish the Iraqi army. Unfortunately, that palpable apprehension is based on the vague but nagging sense of a dangerous, undeniable truth: Most of America's population centers, and most of its economic infrastructure, are nearly as vulnerable to attack now as they were on Sept. 11, 2001.

The recent Council on Foreign Relations report by former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman concludes: "If a catastrophic terrorist attack occurred today, emergency first responders -- police, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel -- in most of the nation's cities are no better prepared to react now than they were prior to September 11." This is a dire observation in light of recent startling warnings from key Cabinet members, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ("The cost of underestimating the threat is increasingly unthinkable.") and CIA Director George Tenet ("There will be another attack. They will take advantage of seams in our security.").

I wish "seams" were all we had to worry about. With the exception of some additional airport security, next to nothing has been invested in protecting America's population centers or its economic infrastructure. If our own teenage graffiti vandals can get to the chemical cars passing through American cities on our railroads, how hard could it be for al Qaeda? Not hard at all, when you consider there are five security guards monitoring CSX tracks between Richmond and Wilmington, Del., two fewer than there were on Sept. 11, 2001.

If the drug cartels' cocaine and heroin can still flow uninterrupted into America's unprotected and uninspected ports, how hard could it be for Hussein or Osama bin Laden to smuggle a dirty bomb or a nuke? Not hard at all when, on average, 2 percent of America's incoming port cargo is inspected, about the same percentage as on Sept. 11, 2001.

There is another dangerous, undeniable truth here: The federal government can't invest in homeland security when the treasury is bled dry by incessant tax cuts and the ensuing deficits they cause. Admittedly, the securing of our rails, ports and other economic infrastructure will take time, but why wait for the universally anticipated second attack to begin the work? Is that the only event that would shock the federal government into making homeland security a budget priority? Imagine how much progress could have been made on homeland defense if we had made the necessary investments a year and a half ago. Every metropolitan area would have:

* Proper protective equipment and training for all first responders, including firefighters, police and health care workers; they would be improving their effectiveness and coordination regularly with tabletop exercises, field exercises and computer simulations.

* A local intelligence network through which police from every jurisdiction in the metro area would share information instantly and routinely with a 24-hour operations center linking federal and local law enforcement.

* A bio-surveillance system in partnership with hospitals, providing real0time geo-mapped information on symptoms encountered in emergency rooms and by paramedics on the street.

* Completed assessments of the vulnerability of critical infrastructure and other likely targets. They would have emergency response plans graded to national levels of alert and keyed to critical infrastructure vulnerabilities.

* Emergency communications systems moving toward interoperability and redundancy.

Well-equipped and well-trained fire, police and health workers are our best protection against terrorism; but we cannot expect to fund a robust and effective homeland defense with local property tax revenue and the proceeds of fire hall bingos. In Baltimore we have tried to make homeland defense a priority, regardless. But of the $11 million we have spent on homeland defense since 9/11, only $1 million has come from the federal government. So much for its constitutional duty "to provide for the common defense."

America wins wars with service and sacrifice, not with tax cuts on top of tax cuts. If the federal government were to support our homeland troops with even a fraction of the funding we have rightly invested to support our troops abroad, we could implement a much higher and more effective level of homeland security quickly. But time is not on our side; and neither, apparently, is our federal government.

Contrary to the warnings of his own key advisers, the president has made a cold, political calculation that tax cuts are of far greater importance than homeland security. It appears that nothing short of a second catastrophic attack will change his mind. I pray my gut is wrong.

The writer, a Democrat, is mayor of Baltimore.