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Exploiting the Fears of Terrorism

It’s easy to look back and see how we allowed the “Patriot” act to slip past us: we were emotional from the attacks on 9/11 and fearful and thereby willing to sacrifice the rights that make us American.  We were convinced that it was a different time, a time when the Constitution needed reinterpretation.  More than a decade later we still feel the effects of 9/11 everywhere: airport security has never been the same, war has consumed our lives, our military has become enormous, executive action has become an increasingly popular recourse; we have constantly been in a time of “great threat” since 9/11.  Around 3000 died on that day and a subsequent 5000+ fighting abroad in the wars since.  Perhaps the most terrorizing effect, however, is the credibility we have given to terrorism and the way that fear is now being exploited.

Last week in Boston, in a senseless and abhorrent act, terrorism struck again and 3 died and 170 or so were wounded (17 critical).   In an all-out manhunt, the city was placed in martial law and we threw any rights to freedom out the window to catch the despicable individuals responsible.  Upon apprehension, the one living suspect was not read his rights.


Real damage: 3 killed, 17 critically wounded, 150+ more wounded to some extent.  This is what threw our country into a tailspin.  Without getting into a passionate discussion on gun rights but to give this perspective, at the time of writing this blog 3,527 Americans (according to a NYT tracker) have been killed from gun violence since Newtown.  More than a 1000% fatality difference (even more if you consider the time lapse between the last victim of terrorism on our soil), yet it was the terrorist act killing 3 that spun us into martial law and a common sense bill that could not get through the senate.

We have been tricked into believing that terrorism is our greatest threat; it is not.  Terrorism relies on communication; it is a message that relies on us being scared of it and thus requires more credibility than it otherwise would warrant.  It is emotional, yet irrational; it is not the biggest threat and not worth giving up the rights that we should be enjoying as Americans.

The real fear from terrorist acts, then, is not the damage in blood spilt, which when put in perspective is extraordinarily small in comparison to other real threats plaguing our streets, it is the fear generated from the blood spilt, or as FDR said, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.”  We need to push back.  We need to let terrorists know that they will not scare us, but not by massive police manhunts made for CNN to appease the mob calling for a head on a stick, or massive invasions of foreign countries, or massive restructuring of homeland security posts, or absolute desecration of the Constitution, but by sending the message that a terrorist is, by itself, a small person; it is a person that only wields the power that we give it.  Terrorism, then, has to be a minuscule part of our lives, it only holds value if we give it value, but we must realize that we are more threatened by a car accident than a terrorist bomb.  Terrorists are nothing more than criminals; they’re no more a war combatant than a crack dealer on the corner holding up a liquor store—the only difference is visibility and thus the credibility we give it.

The scary thing is the structure of our society now allows something like the Boston terrorists to warrant a shut down of the city with hardly any dissent.  Rather than waiting a month, year, or decade to look in hindsight at all the rights we sacrificed when we were scared of the Boston bombing, we need to stop judging acts emotionally and judge them realistically.  It was a terrible act that killed 3 people and wounded several more, but lets not sacrifice our way of life over this anymore than we would if it were a back alley shooting or stabbing that did not get anything more than a back page article in the local paper.

This is far more than theoretical; the debate whether we should respect the rights of the citizen SUSPECT is already raging.   Senator Lindsey Graham suggests not, that this is a terrorist and the public safety exception applies—no need to Mirandize, go ahead and extract information by any means necessary.  Again, to put this in perspective, Lindsey Graham was one of the senators that voted against expanding background checks, presumably fearing infringement of rights (without blatantly saying it was playing politics).  So the lesson learned from what this senator has told us this week is that some amendments are binding, others are not, but we’ll leave that determination up to the government.  The right to bear arms is not to be infringed upon (to include any gross distortion of the meaning of infringement) meanwhile American citizen’s 4th amendment rights can arbitrarily be taken away should we (read government with consensus approval) deem the actions extra gross.  This determination of grossness, of course, is credibility.  But what about the Aurora shooter? He is getting a trial, he is receiving due process and he killed 12 and injured 58.  He even told authorities that his place was boobie trapped with explosives.  But apparently that was not a terrorist attack, that wasn’t a Muslim, it wasn’t a bomb; it was a gun so it was not a public safety exception.  But with a quarter of the fatalities Senator Graham believes that the public safety exception is applicable.  But how many deaths and injuries have been incurred by terrorism since 9/11 on our soil?  What about other crime?  We do not live in a time of great threat, we just have been convinced we do—the threat is just as significant as it was before 9/11.  These senseless acts will occur from time to time, they did long before 9/11 and will continue to long after; the power of a lunatic acting individually is that they can slip through the cracks—it will never be 100% stopped.  Fortunately reality suggests that we do not live in a world littered with these lone lunatics—very rarely do they manifest.

The real fear from terrorism is the repercussions of our fears of terrorism.   The threat of losing more liberties under the flag of terrorism is a much more real threat to us than blood spilt by terrorism.  Not affording the suspects due process gives terrorism all the credibility it relies upon to be successful.  It is visual, so if it is believed to be the greatest threat, it is successful.  The person who committed these heinous acts of violence needs this notoriety to send their message and Senator Graham is suggesting we give them exactly what they want.

Tim O'Hair is a political blogger and a contributor to 1-800-Politics.com

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