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How safe do you feel today?

By Alan Caruba
web posted November 15, 2004

I have been thinking about how much Americans are willing to pay to feel safe from Osama bin Laden and I have concluded we are at risk of paying too much.

I suspect anyone taking a plane for business or vacation thinks about this every time they have to take off their shoes, knowing instinctively that this is the result of one, single, unsuccessful bomber. Millions of people fly millions of miles every year and every one of them has become the victim of that would-be terrorist.

In an article (PDF, 97 Kb) by John Mueller that appeared in the fall edition of Regulation magazine, the author points out that "an American's chance of being killed in one nonstop airline flight is about one in 13 million." Bomb or no bomb. Despite this, 9-11 has resulted in the near bankruptcy of several airlines and the increased cost of airline travel that does not, in fact, reflect a real risk.

Real risk is the subject of Life: The Odds by Gregory Baer ($11.00, Plume softcover) that is very instructive in this "age of terrorism." As The National Anxiety Center has pointed out in the past, the most dangerous thing that any American does is to either drive or be a passenger in a car. Every year more than 40,000 Americans die as the result of auto accidents. Statistically, you're at even more risk if you are on a bicycle or motorcycle. Or just out walking.

Throughout the recent election campaign, the President reminded everyone in every speech that (1) we are engaged in a war on "terrorism" and (2) his first priority was to keep every American safe. If we step back from these claims, we must first note that we are in a war with Islam and terror is the means being used by al-Qaida to get us to leave areas of the Middle East to their tender mercies. Al-Qaida thought we could be defeated if we launched a military effort. They were wrong. Moreover, since 9-11, the US has not experienced any further attacks and presumably has successfully thwarted any new ones. That is an extraordinary achievement.

It should be noted, too, that al-Qaida has been so effectively reduced as a threat that Osama bin Laden's latest video, after an absence of some two years, was virtually a plea to leave the United States alone if we would stop hunting for him and killing all of his colleagues.

In effect, terrorism as defined by individual attacks on mainland America has ceased and war as defined by our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have contributed greatly to our increased security. These area-specific wars are, in the short term, costly, but in the long term our efforts are effectively undermining the capacity of Islamic fanatics to pursue their goals. Moreover, virtually every single nation in the world has joined the United States in our effort to degrade and destroy the Islamist jihad. This is hardly a definition of "unilateralism."

We may well see a significant change in the way the Middle East relates to the greater world within a generation's time. Even the Europeans who have been inclined to sit on the sidelines are changing their view of our actions. Ask anyone in Spain or the Netherlands. NATO nations are training Iraqis to defend their emerging new nation. France has troops in Afghanistan assisting our effort there. The president of the Russian Federation, which has experienced its share of terrorist attacks, was pleased by the election's outcome.

So why is the budget of the Department of Homeland Security a whopping $30 billion a year? Soon enough, says John Mueller, Americans are going to have to ask themselves and their legislators how much we are willing to pay for "a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low?" And "How much should we be willing to pay for actions that are primarily reassuring, but do little to change the actual risk?"

These are important questions to ask when one contemplates the obvious need to reduce the nation's huge deficit. As just one example, just how much should we pay to check every single container of goods coming into the nation when this is not likely to have much, if any, affect on public safety?

Perhaps the most important question is whether Americans, in a quest for the illusion of safety against terrorist attacks, are willing to accept a government that would issue National ID cards, a key element of all totalitarian regimes, as the price to feel safe?

Do we Americans want to give the government the right and the means to track our personal movements and financial transactions in return for the illusion of protection against terrorist attacks which would kill a relatively few people compared to the deaths incurred annually from automobile fatalities, homicides, and just plain old accidents?

So, how safe do you feel today? How much of your personal liberty are you prepared to surrender when you contemplate the actual risks?

The Constitution was written "in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…."

We are that posterity. Our common defense is being tended to by the most powerful military force on the face of the earth. And the greatest risk we face today is the loss of the blessings of liberty whenever Congress is in session.

Alan Caruba writes "Warning Signs", a weekly commentary posted on the website of The National Anxiety Center at www.anxietycenter.com. © Alan Caruba 2004

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