IN THE LAST WEEK or two, there were incessant promos on CNN for the GOP presidential debate held Tuesday night. The ads - which reflect the new zeitgeist among TV producers and pundits, if not necessarily the American people - signaled that the entire debate would be about terrorism and related issues in the wake of the recent attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino. "National Security!" the spots screamed.
"Who Will Keep Us Safe!"
There's this odd notion - which has become more popular, even prevalent, since the Paris attacks - that the moment that terrorism rears its ugly head, it's silly and even dangerous to want to talk about any other political issues. When the Democrats had the second of their stealth debates on the Saturday night of the weekend of the bloodshed in France, CBS officials toyed with making the event about nothing but national security. There were reports that Sen. Bernie Sanders and his campaign objected to shutting out domestic issues - a move that created some scorn among the chattering classes who claimed it showed that Sanders wasn't "serious" if he didn't want to debate only terror for two hours.
Really? Is a serious way to run a country to drop everything - the lack of working-class jobs, the never-ending struggle to get health care to every citizen, the massive debt that's typically required to get a college education, policing policies that leave some neighborhoods feeling like an occupied territory - to make terrorism our one and only focus?
Look, 9/11 was awful, and since then - under policies that have bipartisan support, such as better airport and airline security - Islamic terror has killed 45 Americans, or an average of 3.2 citizens every year. That's still 45 deaths too many, and we should look at strategies to reduce it to zero without violating our fundamental liberties.
But many have also noted, fairly, that even more people have been killed since 2001 by what the New York Times calls "non-Islamic extremists" (many of them followers of right-wing causes, like Charleston gunman Dylann Roof), and that, of course, there's no comparison with overall, non-"terrorism" gun violence, which has killed 400,000 people since 2001. But that will never be the subject of a two-hour debate, because we know our so-called leaders will only throw up their hands.
But I'd take it to the next level, the one where I think Bernie Sanders is coming from on this. Too often, we use terrorism, and the fear of being attacked, to not only voluntarily give up some of our freedoms but also to squelch debate on ideas that might reduce some of the massive inequality in America and mean a better life for millions of people, using the dozens who might be killed by terrorism as an excuse.
I would ask, who will keep us safe from a system in which - even with all the hard-fought incremental advances under Obamacare - some 29 million Americans are still not able to obtain basic health insurance, in which thousands of people - not 3.2 people, but thousands - become needlessly sick or face medical bankruptcy or even die every year here in the world's wealthiest democracy?
Who will keep us safe from a political system in which almost every election and every political candidate is for sale to the highest bidder - most famously, a billionaire like the host of Tuesday night's "Who Will Keep Us Safe?" debate on CNN, Sheldon Adelson - and in which more and more states are passing laws to make it harder for minorities, seniors and college students to vote? And who will keep us safe from the ravages of climate change - a topic that had most of the world's attention in Paris but has seemed to escape the notice of the GOP presidential candidates?
Perhaps most important, who will keep us safe from those politics that have created a staggeringly unequal society in which nearly all of the income gains of recent years have flowed toward the top 1 percent and in which jobless middle-aged, middle-class workers have been stripped of almost all hope?
In 1941, with America less than a year away from joining World War II, Franklin Roosevelt used the State of the Union address to deliver his famous Four Freedoms speech. In it, he did, of course, speak of freedom from fear - understandably in a time of rising fascism. But he also noted that a successful America requires "freedom from want - which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants - everywhere in the world." If that is ever eliminated from our national debate, we cannot truly be free.