“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the American people during his first inaugural address.
Speaking in the heart of the Depression, Roosevelt was addressing this country’s economic collapse. Today, Barack Obama should be repeating those words in a different context, aiming them at our so-called “War on Terror.”
Lost these past weeks in the media hand-wringing about the underwear bomber, the Jordanian suicide bomber, full-body scanners and how we can make flying safe is this simple truth: Nothing in life is risk free.
Consider: Some 11,700 people were killed in 2008 in accidents involving alcohol-impaired drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Does this mean we should plant undercover cops outside every bar in America to give breathalyzer tests to those leaving? Impossible, right?
Or perhaps we should we should just ban cars outright? More than 16,000 Americans were killed in the first six months of 2009 in traffic accidents.
Even factoring in the catastrophic events of 9/11, far more traffic deaths are caused each year by alcohol in this country than have been caused by terrorists in the last decade. Yet we accept traffic deaths as inevitable tragedies of daily life.
I suspect we delude ourselves into believing that when get into our cars, we control the risks. We perceive, at least, that by being vigilant, we can steer clear of that drunken driver veering head-on into our car’s path. Or we think that cup of coffee we down before leaving the party makes us safe enough to drive ourselves.
Terrorism, on the other hand, the bomber on the plane or in the nearby mall, is beyond our control. It can strike anywhere at any time. And so it elicits disproportionate fear.
But in truth, such attacks are extremely rare. More people die on planes brought down by mechanical error or weather events than by suicide bombers.
It’s important to consider these realities as we debate just how far to inconvenience and intrude into the privacy of the flying public. Let’s, by all means, do what we reasonably can to keep flying safe. But let’s stop short of discarding the civil liberties at the core of American democracy. And let’s not perseverate on issues of safety and security at the expense of everything else.
A couple of examples:
Statistics released by the Department of Agriculture earlier this year showed that roughly one in six Americans eats either too little or too poorly (the term is “food insecurity”). The number is nearly 50 million people. No question some of those people grow weaker, sicker and even die because they can’t afford an adequate diet. Should we do something about that?
Or, as Frank Rich of The New York Times notes today in an article titled The Other Plot to Wreck America,”Americans must be told the full story of how Wall Street gamed and inflated the housing bubble, made out like bandits, and then left millions of households in ruin. Without that reckoning, there will be no public clamor for serious reform of a financial system that was as cunningly breached as airline security at the Amsterdam airport.”
After nearly a decade of war, with no end in sight, is it perhaps time to rethink our priorities? Doesn’t it make more sense to strengthen this country by making it healthier, more transparent, more egalitarian and more caring than by eyeing every stranger with more suspicion?
It would be hard to argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have helped end global terrorism. Indeed, some argue the opposite — that every stray American drone that kills civilians in a war zone serves as a gold-plated recruiting tool for the terrorists themselves.
In truth, terror can never be defeated. It can, however, be gradually eroded with a mix of reasoned vigilance, sound policy and and calm equilibrium, a quality sometimes in short supply in hyperbolic America, 2010. When terrorism turns a country into a fearful fighting machine, angry, acerbic and intent on crushing its enemies, it is the terrorists who win.