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Getting a grip on the subject of terrorism
Scripps Howard News Service


July 12, 2007

For nearly six years now we've been hearing from politicians and pundits about how Sept. 11, 2001, "changed everything." One especially unwelcome change wrought by that day has been that, ever since, large numbers of otherwise sane and sensible people continue to utter the most ridiculous things regarding the subject of terrorism.

Consider a column last week by The Washington Post's David Ignatius. Ignatius wonders how the nation would react to a future terrorist attack. "Would the country come together to combat its adversaries," he asks, "or would it pull farther apart?"

Ignatius notes that liberals would blame the Bush administration for needlessly inflaming Muslim anti-Americanism by bungling the invasion of Iraq, while conservatives would blame liberals for weakening the nation's anti-terrorism defenses, by insisting that, for example, laws requiring warrants for wiretaps and forbidding torture be obeyed.

Ignatius calls this sort of political disagreement "scary," given that "the British car bomb plots uncovered last week remind us of our vulnerability to terrorist attack, wherever we live."

"In a politically healthy nation," Ignatius intones, "the news from Britain would have a galvanizing effect. Politicians and the public would pull together and take appropriate steps to prepare for future terrorist attacks on America."

And just what would these steps include? Ignatius doesn't say! He's strongly in favor of "national unity" -- but in order to do what? (All this reminds me of "The Simpsons" episode in which Willie Nelson invites the family to make a presentation at the New Awareness Awards. "When we heard the goal was to promote awareness," Marge says, "we couldn't say no!")

When the subject is terrorism, people like Ignatius seem to have trouble grasping that political disagreement is real. Let me put it as plainly as possible: the reason Americans disagree about how to respond to the threat of terrorism is because they have radically different views on the matter.

For instance, my view is that Ignatius and his ilk have helped create a fear of terrorism out of all proportion to the actual threat terrorism poses; that by doing so they helped drag America into a disastrous war with Iraq; and that they're now helping to create the conditions that may enable an even more disastrous war with Iran.

Nothing better illustrates this than Ignatius' claim that the British car bombing plots "remind us of our vulnerability to terrorist attack." What they remind anyone not already in thrall to the cultural hysteria Ignatius promotes is that all the "terrorists" discovered in America over the past few years were, like the British would-be bombers, thoroughly pathetic figures, who collectively proved themselves incapable of blowing up a phone booth.

In the two hours or so I'm guessing it took Ignatius to crank out yet another 800 words of substance-free alarmism festooned with banal platitudes about the need for "unity," about 350 Americans died. Since Sept. 11, 2001, approximately 14 million Americans have died.

Some of these people died agonizing deaths on emergency-room floors because they didn't have health insurance. A quarter-million were killed in car crashes. Around 200,000 were shot to death. Several thousand died of acute alcohol poisoning.

In theory, most of these deaths were preventable. In practice, only some of them were preventable at anything like a reasonable cost. Here's a question: What would be the optimal number of deaths per year in the United States caused by less-than-ideal medical care, or car crashes, or gunshot wounds, or alcohol poisoning?

I'm sure Ignatius understands why anyone who answers "zero" is saying something nonsensical. So why does he continue to write similar nonsense about terrorism?


Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)
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Ketchikan, Alaska