As I write, we are in "Code Orange," the second-highest level of terrorism alert. The government tells us we should buy duct tape to seal our windows against chemical or biological attack. In Washington, D.C., police are carrying gas masks, and anti-aircraft weapons are being deployed. In San Francisco, bomb-sniffing dogs are checking vehicles on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Imagine someone fell into a coma on September 10, 2001, just woke up, and set out to learn to what degree foreign terrorists really threaten our safety, and how much government can really do about it. He might have learned the following.
* If the 3,646 casualties of 9/11 were uniformly distributed across the American population (290 million), the disaster would have claimed five Spokane County residents. During 2001, 3,692 Spokane County residents died from all causes, 171 from accidents, 30 from homicides,
* All the weapons of mass destruction mentioned recently have existed since World War II. The mustard gas Saddam Hussein used on Kurdish rebels was first deployed in World War I, by both sides. The only incident of terrorist use was a 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway by a Japanese religious cult, killing 12 people.
* Illegal aliens and smuggled drugs remain abundant, in spite of post-9/11 border security measures.
* Professional testers who regularly try to breach airport security systems succeed a good part of the time.
* A year after the homeland security campaign began, two men terrorized the Washington, D.C., area for several weeks by shooting people on streets and in public places.
* During World War II, allied commandos and local resistance forces functioned like today's terrorists. In spite of unspeakably cruel measures, German occupation forces could not stop them. Neither could cold war communist governments stop vast numbers of refugees from escaping, although their borders were patrolled by guards who shot to kill.
Lacking the advantage of more than a year of continuous television coverage, our awakened friend might be forgiven for placing foreign terrorists several notches down the average American's list of threats to life. Likewise, it would be understandable if he concluded that governments are unable to prevent massive border violations and internal violence, and they will be even less able to stop small groups of well-trained, well-organized and well-financed terrorists, regardless of how much is spent or how many rights are given up.
Let's go on imagining. Shortly after
9/11, President Bush says to the nation:
"I have directed government to give the disaster appropriate attention, consistent with other priorities. We will tend the injured, bury the dead and grieve with loved ones. Then we will clean up the mess and pursue the culprits. But we must also accept the fact that foreign terrorists have joined a long list of unavoidable threats to our safety; disease, accidents, common criminals, violent weather and so on. As it always has, government will help the public reduce all those risks. But citizens must do their share by accepting a new reality. We will never eliminate terrorism."
President Bush did not say that. Nor would any president of any party, at least not in his right political mind. Instead, as we all know, we have lunged into excess, at home and abroad.
In a free, democratic society, leaders and followers share responsibility for the bad as well as the good. Sellers of tobacco, liquor, even junk food, deserve blame for harm done by their products. But so do the customers (us) who keep them in business.
Politicians who pound the war drums and bureaucrats who peddle multi-billion dollar "homeland security" programs should be held accountable for the costs and casualties, as they inevitably roll in.
So should we, the TV-watching, poll-responding, voting public. We are the ones who reward media leaders for feeding us the ghoul and grief we crave, by calling it news. We participate in the silly interviews about being "transformed by 9/11." We cheer the politicians who bomb or imprison anyone who (they think) threatens us. We condemn the few voices (in politics, media, even entertainment) that raise questions.
A year from now, are you willing to stand up and be accountable for what lies at the end of the road were are traveling? I'm not.
Robert Stokes lives in Spokane and is an occasional contributor to The Inlander.
Publication date: 02/20/03