America Grounded

We put a stop last week to the ramming of buildings with hijacked jetliners. Unfortunately, we also shut down the entire air-transport system.

New restrictions on passengers, including random searches of luggage, were put into place, along with airport patrols and new restrictions on people's movement and access. But aside from prohibiting knives on planes (they didn't already do that?) and finally giving checkpoint security guards at least as much training as your average night watchman in a used car lot, not a thing announced so far would have stopped these hijackings.

How much must we give up for a trivial change in the odds against death from terrorism?

Our society might choose a different tradeoff between liberty and some other social good, such as protection of human life. But if we will sacrifice liberty or convenience for safety from attack, will we sacrifice our tax reductions or our moral views on stem cells to prevent death by disease? What about doing something to prevent attacks by bioweapons, or carbombings, or street crime? Will we sacrifice tourism to prevent (last week's crisis) shark attacks?

Airline companies recently resisted, on cost-benefit grounds, aircraft modifications that might cost a billion dollars but render far less likely another TWA-style fuel tank explosion. We treasure our dollars. What is freedom -- lira? Some fervent believers stampeded the government to curtail the use of human cells in medical research that would surely save lives in the relatively near future. We will sacrifice human freedom, but not human stem cells?

Or did something fundamentally change last week? Is it now our resolve to halt death?

The death rate in the United States is 8.7 deaths per 1,000 population. In a population of 275.6 million people, nearly 2.4 million die every year. That's 6,568 people every day -- not far from the number of likely deaths in the terrorist attacks last Tuesday. How many preventable deaths were there on Wednesday, or Thursday, or Friday? How many lives would be saved in a year if we had turned our tax rebate over to medical research, or put the money into higher automobile safety standards? How many mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children died of cancer last week, or diabetes, or kidney failure or AIDS? How many from accidents on dangerous roads? How many from guns?

How much would we reduce the antagonism, even hatred, toward the United States in some areas of the world -- the kind of thing that lets terrorism germinate -- if our foreign aid and overseas cultural and educational programs amounted to more than a fraction of 1% of the federal budget? Who knows what the effect would be? This is who knows: The same person who knows how many acts of terrorism will be prevented by eliminating curbside baggage check-in and increasing random searches of people's luggage. No one knows. No one knows whether the randomly placed sky marshals will wind up on the same flight chosen by a hijacker. Yet we will inflict government searches on all traveling citizens without any probable cause, while rejecting the idea of spending, say, $20 million more on international aid. (The post-tragedy emergency appropriation will be about $40 billion, two thousand times as much, and twice what President Bush first asked for. That's about the same as the budget for the Commerce, Justice and State Departments combined.)

When a herd starts moving, we tend to follow. But when you find yourself following a herd, it's time to change the scenery, to resurrect a sense of proportion. We feel the pain of those hurt in the terrorist attacks, but we don't feel the pain of chemotherapy patients whose nausea would be relieved by smoking a little pot. We'll march on Washington to stop black teenage girls from aborting their fetuses, but utter nary a word about farmworker children living in slavelike conditions. One wonders: the sanctity of which life? The terror of which death?

This has been an awful week for our country. We watch those huge buildings fall in on themselves imagining the terror of the thousands still inside. We feel more vulnerable, as individuals and as a nation. We admire the heroic efforts apparently made by those on Flight 93, and the courage and perseverance of police officers, firefighters and other rescuers. But in our emotion over an event so extraordinary and dramatic, let us not diminish the daily terror and courage of those who suffer and die in ordinary ways, and the ones who care for them -- victims of other things that we can hunt down and destroy, if we have the will to do it.

And let us not mistake a visceral response for a sensible one.

You know why we sacrifice freedom more easily than money? Because the loss of freedom will not weigh as heavily on white, educated and financially secure people in our society (such as most government officials and mass-media commentators). The loss of freedom will fall most heavily on "other" people, the ones stopped for "driving while black;" the Arab-Americans suspected of anti-American activity just because of their name and passport; the people whose native language and lack of sophistication impair their ability to deal with an official who stops them for routine questioning. The well-to- do may nominally lose a little freedom, but it's cheaper than taking back those estate-tax exemptions.

When it comes to the sacrifice of freedom, or even mere convenience, we need to be very clear about what we gain in return. There is palpable overreaction now. The Boston Herald said Logan Airport (which towed all the cars in the parking garages) is eliminating plastic knives from bagel stands. Come on, those things can't even stand up to cream cheese. If they'll do that, what about the silverware in first class? The New York Times said a passenger on Flight 93 joked about taking out the hijackers with a butter knife. If butter knives are outlawed, only outlaws . . . well, you know.

Patrick Henry traded certain death for himself in exchange for a statistically tiny increase in the chance for independence. His heroic contemporaries sought to "secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity." We should not sacrifice their historic accomplishment for a modest and theoretical improvement in the odds against death. Especially when mere money and some simple changes in federal policy would more surely save so many more lives.

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