I changed my cable TV plan at home recently so there's not really so many channels, but one of them (for better or worse) is CNN -- so I've been forced to watch that a lot more than usual. In the last week or two, that's meant incessant promos for the GOP presidential debate that will be held later tonight in a casino belonging to billionaire Sheldon Adelson (whose individual support, which comes attached to $50 million or so in campaign cash, is probably worth more than the 10 million or so average schlubbs who'll be watching it on TV, but I digress...)
The ads -- which reflect the new zeitgeist among TV producers and pundits, if not necessarily the American people -- suggest that the entire debate will be about terrorism and related issues in the wake of the recent attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino. "National Security!" the spots scream. "Who Will Keep Us Safe!" Indeed, the debate preview on CNN's website is now headlined, "Fresh terrors headline tonight's #GOPDebate." (I assume that means the attacks, not the candidates...)
"Who will keep us safe?!" Those words were ringing in my ears today as I read about two very different news stories.
In Los Angeles, in this new "heightened awareness" -- a.k.a. fear -- over the possibility of another attack, all it took was one lonely email from a slightly dodgy IP address to close school for more than 500,000 schoolkids in the nation's second largest city. Jittery LA officials acted without even showing the email to the FBI, which could have told them instantly that it appeared bogus, as officials in New York City -- who received a similar missive -- very quickly concluded.
"There isn't a person on the street who couldn't have written this," said U.S. congressman Brad Sherman, after seeing the email written by someone who apparently lacked even fundamental knowledge of Islam. L.A.'s hasty shutdown decision disrupted the lives of children and parents -- and showed how easy it is for terrorism to work among those who consent to be be terrorized. Internet monitors said there was glee in online pro-ISIS forums. "Thanks God, they are panicked of everything," one ISIS adherent inartfully wrote.
Who will keep us safe?
I was thinking about that this afternoon as I read an appalling story out of the American middle-class wastelands of the Midwest, about a water pollution crisis in the troubled auto town of Flint, Michigan. There, a hard-to-follow dispute with its former water provider the bankrupt city of Detroit (a dispute which, as you might expect, hinges partially on lack of dollars) led Flint to switch its city water supply to the nearby Flint River in 2014. This despite concerns from Day One that the Flint River may be still badly polluted from the Industrial Revolution which once flourished there.
The tap water was cloudy and smelled foul -- but city, state, and federal officials assured them it was safe...at first. Then state officials acknowledged that the water had unlawful levels of trihalomethanes, a chlorine byproduct linked to cancer and other diseases -- but the faucets of Flint kept flowing. Residents began to complain of skin lesions, hair loss, chemical-induced hypertension, vision loss and depression. Finally, a health study confirmed what many parents feared: The number of children in Flint with unsafe levels of lead in their bloodstream has doubled in less than two years.
The new mayor of Flint has declared a state of emergency -- but for thousands of kids in the economically challenged Michigan city, that may be too little, too late. Health experts say that lead poisoning can cause neurological and behavioral problems for children that are irreversible.
Who will keep us safe? More to the point, how did America become a nation that will move heaven and earth to keep hundreds of thousands of kids under lock and key should one email happen to mention ISIS, yet at the same time will feed children rank and obviously polluted tap water and for years ignore a mound of evidence that these kids are being poisoned. Since almost all of the Republicans are running on a platform of slashing both environmental regulations and the size of the EPA (which, stating the obvious, was already MIA in Flint under Democratic President Obama), we probably won't get the answer to that question tonight on CNN.
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? It 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 fairly noted 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 there's no comparison with overall, non-"terrorism" gun violence, which has killed 400,000 people since 2001 but will never be the subject of a two-hour debate, because we know that 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 to also squelch debate on ideas that might reduce some of the massive inequality in America and mean a better life for million 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 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 tonight's "Who Will Keep Us Safe?" debate on CNN, Mr. 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 which has seemed to escape the notice of the GOP presidential candidates?
Perhaps most importantly, 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.