Ira Chernus  


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 donít 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 driveróthe presidentógot 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 unmentionedóeven impending disaster.

Or perhaps we believe that changing direction wonít 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 evilís 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 that.

But letís suppose Osama bin Laden speaks for the criminals. (If he doesnít, 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. Arenít 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, donít 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 it.