Safety dance

January 05, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Could we rerun the videotape back to Dec. 15 when Howard Dean qualified his pleasure at the capture of Saddam Hussein by saying that it "has not made America safer"? Dr. Dean was instantly lambasted by his opponents, especially Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who said the doctor was climbing "into his own spider hole of denial."

Well, six days later, after the sort of terrorist "chatter" designed to make your teeth chatter, the country was put on orange alert for a "spectacular" attack rivaling 9/11. Then six Air France flights destined to fly into the homeland were grounded. And finally, under "emergency rules," our government has required armed guards on foreign flights.

Are we safer yet?

Meanwhile, in Libya, Muammar el Kadafi turned around and allowed nuclear inspectors. But in Pakistan, there was another assassination attempt on Gen. Pervez Musharraf, whose country has its own nuclear weapons and scientists.

So, are we safer yet?

This is not a rhetorical question or a smarty-pants refrain or a defense of Dr. Dean. It's a straightforward inquiry that is sure to underlie the new year and the presidential campaign.

Everyone knows that Sept. 11, 2001, shifted the American sense of vulnerability. And sense is the right word. People who assess risk for a living will tell you that since 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks, more than 100,000 have died on the highways. They will also tell you that these figures have little to do with how we feel. As Jessica Stern, author of Terror in the Name of God, says, "The radius of psychological damage from a terrorist strike is much bigger than the material damage."

Last year, President Bush said, "We refuse to live in fear," and justified a pre-emptive war against Iraq as a strike against fear. This year, the Bush campaign will simultaneously tell us how dangerous the world is and how much safer they've made it.

Democrats, and not just Dr. Dean, will say we are not safe enough, or not in safe hands. In a recent preview, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark said that if he'd been president, "we'd have had Osama bin Laden dead or alive two years ago, and the world would have been a lot safer."

Are we safe, safer, safest, yet? What is safe enough? If we won't live in fear, don't we have to live with fear?

This is a country that is, by every actuarial table, extremely safe. But it's also a country where toothpaste comes with a warning label and a mad cow can set off a vegetarian stampede.

Our reactions to the current orange alert ranged across a bell curve of fear. A shoebox on library steps in New York caused an evacuation of 5,000 people. It held a stuffed snowman. A mayor told a reporter that his city is "on the front line of the war on terrorism." His city is Peoria, Ariz.

At the same time, Americans went home for the holidays. And in D.C., a colleague blithely brushed away the alert by saying, "Orange is the new yellow," as if it were a fashion statement.

Part of the problem is that safety is not just relative, it's mobile. If we protect against anthrax, does the terrorist move to smallpox? If we hire air guards to beware of terrorists infiltrating the flight deck, will terrorists infiltrate the air guards? Or hop a freight? In safety, as in thermodynamics, you cannot get to absolute zero.

The biggest struggle with the "sense" of vulnerability is where to put our dollars and our worries. As a member of the duck-and-cover generation, my worst-case scenarios are nuclear and I do not rest assured. At the same time, I feel more manipulated than comforted by the way we launched a war against fear. Mr. Hussein's arrest makes me feel delighted but not safer.

I remember what an administration official said about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal: "It's what we don't know that worries us." He could have said it about anything. We'll only recognize the right choices when we look back in that instrument Dr. Dean describes ironically as a "retrospectascope."

So this year, we'll hear candidates promising to be the architects of a better safety zone. Listening from the uneasy radius of terrorism, it's up to us to figure out a place where safe enough is enough.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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