There is an eerie quiet across the land. The chance of a second
major terrorist attack is somewhere between “very likely” and “100%
guaranteed,” according to the people we pay with our tax dollars to know
such things. I feel like I am on a huge bus heading straight toward
a cliff. We could suggest that the driver steer in a different
direction. But no one wants to talk about it.
Perhaps this is a school bus, where the kids sit quietly because they
don’t want to make the driver mad. Back in early October, news
leaked out that intelligence officials told Congress another attack was
100% certain, if we attacked Afghanistan. The driver -- the
president -- got very mad, indeed. He threatened to limit
Congressional briefings drastically (and then backed off). But Bush
spokesman Ari Fleischer had already warned: “People have to watch
what they say.” The news media got the message. Some
things are better left unmentioned - even impending disaster.
Or perhaps we believe that changing direction won’t help anyway.
The president has tried to convince us that nothing we do can influence
the terrorists. Sometimes he describes them as Nazis, bent on
conquering us because they hate our freedoms. Sometimes he paints
them as inhuman demons, bent on evil for evil’s sake. In either
case, there is no way to deter them from their appointed villainy; we are
on a bus with no steering wheel. Most Americans seem to believe
But let’s suppose Osama bin Laden speaks for the criminals. (If he
doesn’t, current U.S. policy is pointless.) He does not try
to tell us how we should live here at home. He does define specific
new policy directions he wants us to take in his part of the world:
get U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia; end bombing and sanctions in Iraq;
stop supporting Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. These
may or may not be wise policies for us. But they are not wholly
unthinkable. And they might give us a chance of veering away from
the cliff. Aren’t they worth talking about?
Some say this would be appeasement. Do we want to send others the
message that terrorism pays? But put the question another
way: Do we want to send the message that, on rare occasions when
our government's policies drive people to suicidal desperation and
homicidal rage, we will at least discuss those policies? When our
policies put thousands of American lives at risk, don’t we want to weigh
the wisdom of those policies against the potential loss of life?
Why not send that message? Is it unreasonable?
There is surely no guarantee that a change in U.S. policies would avert
the next attack. But it might. If staying the present course
means a certainty of another attack (as Congress was told), then the math
is simple: changing policies makes us relatively safer than
continuing the present policies.
Of course safety may not be the highest value. Our present policies
in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Israel may be so important that they are worth
the loss of thousands more American lives. But that is a decision
for all of us passengers on the bus to make. This is a democracy,
where the driver is suppose to heed the majority will. If we leave
all decisions up to the driver, we give up the democratic freedom we are
supposedly defending. And it looks like the driver is hell-bent to
take us over the cliff.
So principle and self-preservation both lead to the same
conclusion. It is time to break the silence and start a national
debate, before it is too late. The alternative is to wait until the
next thousands die. That would be terrible, not only for the
victims and their loved ones, but for the whole nation. After the
next attack, some will insist that the new deaths make the old policies
more sacred and inviolable; to change them would mean that all the
victims died in vain. Others will be equally convinced that we must
change policies as the only way of avoiding further catastrophe.
The more deaths, the more polarized we will become. Anyone old
enough to remember the Vietnam war knows that.
We can insist that the driver turn the wheel in a new direction.
Perhaps we should insist. Perhaps not. But surely now, while
we can still talk to each other, is the time to start talking about
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of
Colorado at Boulder. email@example.com