The nation's values, not survival, at risk

Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
In all that has been written and uttered in recent days about the fifth anniversary of 9-11, here is one question that has not been asked: What do boats, bicycles, guns and terrorists have in common? Answer: They all kill about the same number of Americans each year.
Dividing the nearly 3,000 people killed on 9-11 over the last five years gives you an average annual figure of 600. About that number die each year in accidents on boats, while riding bicycles and from the accidental discharge of firearms. (Tens of thousands more die from guns each year, but those are suicides and homicides.) Or put another way, more nonsmokers die as a result of breathing someone else's tobacco smoke every year than died on 9-11.
The horror of watching the exact moments when thousands of people died was a national trauma, but that shock has been exploited relentlessly since then.
The point of the statistics is not to denigrate the pain and suffering that were inflicted on America on that fateful day. But the size of the threat President Bush and other administration officials have likened the challenge that terrorism poses for the United States today as equal to the ones faced during World War II and the Cold War. While we mourn the loss of every one of the nearly 3,000 who died it is worth remembering that the number of dead resulting from World War II exceeded 60 million. And if there had been a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, there would have been hundreds of millions of casualties in the first few hours.
Comparing the threat of terrorism to that of Communism or the original Axis of evil is not simply historical ignorance or hubris. It is sheer political opportunism. Do those in power really think the nation's very survival is at risk because of a handful of fanatics? Or do they know that their political survival depends on convincing 51 percent of the people of that?
The nation's survival is not at risk, but the values that made it great are. We don't torture, because we use enhanced interrogation techniques. We don't outsource torture, because we ask those governments to which we deliver prisoners for questioning to assure us they don't before they wink and get on with it. We don't abuse prisoners because all those that have are low-ranking officials operating without written orders. We believe justice delayed is justice denied except for those who now have been held for years.
We believe in fair trials except the accused cannot see the evidence against them if it is based on intelligence reports. (And we all know our intelligence reports are infallible.) After years without trials, the administration will now argue that anyone in Congress that opposes the rapid ratification of the procedures just proposed for military tribunals is soft on terrorism.
In other words, we believe in the rule of law. And the law is whatever the ruler says it is.
When reports first surfaced that a clandestine system of prisons existed, the administration declined to comment on "intelligence matters" and condemned the journalists that published the stories.
Now that it is the right political moment, the president has announced their existence. Clearly freedom of the press means the press is free to report what the government says and not what it does.
The warnings that 9-11 might happen were not as clear as a weather map indicating a hurricane was headed toward a city below sea level. In both cases, however, our government failed to anticipate the catastrophe and has been hopelessly inept in its wake. And in both cases, the president has visited the scene and tried to portray his concern for the victims as a reason for re-electing those who failed us.
He has made a speech almost every day recently not because he has anything new to say about terrorism, but because he knows the media will air his every utterance. In this way he can filibuster until we all forget who is responsible and what they have done in our name. Washington searches the world for threats, not to eliminate the serious ones, but to scare themselves and us in order to justify anything that is done.
We should never forget what happened on 9-11 nor stop mourning our loss. But we should also not succumb to politically-motivated paranoia and should instead reflect on what 9-11 has been used as a pretext to create: A nation of sheep led by a collection of liars, fools and cowards.
Dennis C. Jett is Dean of International Studies at the University of Florida. He entered the foreign service in 1972 and has worked in Argentina, Israel, Malawi and Liberia. He also served as Ambassador to Peru and Mozambique. This essay was originally published in the Anniston Star.

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