2007-08-31 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Woe Is Me!
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Writing in last week's Wave, fellow columnist John Paul Culotta (The Progressive) opined on the way the U.S. government under the Bush administration is fighting terrorism. "Does a war on terror entail an abrogation of our civil liberties?" he asked. "Many in the Bush/Cheney administration and their minions feel constitutional guarantees of government restraints are unnecessary or superfluous," he added. Really?

While there is certainly a school of thought which thinks every effort by our government to proactively intercept terrorists is a Constitutional overreach, there is absolutely no evidence for Culotta's claim that Bush and his "minions" (as a Bush supporter, do I qualify as one?) feel the way he describes about the Constitution.

In fact, there's no evidence they are any less vigilant re: the niceties of due process and other constitutionally mandated practices than their critics.

When is the last time the administration disregarded a Supreme Court ruling, for instance? Where have any of us lost our rights to speak out, criticize and complain, or given up any of our other civil liberties? Certainly there are differences of opinion as to how the Constitution should be interpreted, but that's why we have a Supreme Court - to adjudicate opposing views.

There's no evidence the terrorist threat is any less real today than it was in 2001, but we haven't been hit again since that awful day on September 11 and a whole lot of the credit for that has to go to the administration and those policies its political opponents want to condemn. Culotta adds that he doesn't "understand the need for secret courts," completely missing the need for keeping your information secret in order to preserve access to it. Combating terrorism is not a matter of policing, grabbing the culprit after the fact and putting him on trial, after all. Try telling the families of the nearly 3,000 people who died on September 11, 2001 that it is. Or those facing future attacks with radiological, nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, should al Qaeda get its hands on any of these.

In fighting terrorists you can't just pick 'em up after the crime and put 'em on trial. Most of the time they're planning to die in the attack anyway, so capturing them gives them the hoped for martyrdom, at best, a soapbox, courtesy of the U.S. court system, at worst. And maybe they walk on a technicality and get a chance to try again. Meanwhile, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions die.

You've got to be proactive and that means some not-so-nice things like espionage and grabbing your enemies off foreign streets and holding them outside the traditional legal system and even (shudder) aggressive interrogations.

It also means tightening up the borders and enforcing laws with regard to illegal aliens, monitoring money flows and listening in on phone calls. In the most recent flap over surveillance, the Bush administration's earlier surrender to Democratic critics in Congress led to a serious weakening of our ability to monitor overseas communications because the FISA law, written in the 1970s, didn't take account of modern technology.

Calls between one foreign point and another are often routed today through networks within our borders, making an otherwise entirely foreign call domestic and obliging our spooks to turn off the phone taps until a warrant is secured! The Bush administration finally brought this to a head and Congressional Democrats acquiesced, fearing blame if another attack happened. But they only agreed to a sixmonth fix because people like Culotta somehow imagine that this is a Constitutional issue, a violation of their rights.

But the critics' issue with all this is not just about rights, as Culotta's commentary goes on to demonstrate. "Our expenditure of billions of dollars renders us unable to solve domestic concerns," he continues. And: "It is a reality that more Americans are threatened by workplace accidents and/or violence, car accidents, an inadequate health care system that runs on greed, unsanitary hospitals, a lack of a safe and adequate food supply system, unprotected borders, and faulty infrastructure, than by terrorist attack." Well of course they are, John! You've just listed seven problems to the one of terrorism.

But suppose you meant that each alone was more dangerous than terrorism? Would that mean we could stop worrying about terrorism because more people die of auto accidents every year? Auto safety rules and better roads and vehicles are appropriate in addressing road fatalities, of course, just as proactive intelligence and preemption are necessary in dealing with terrorism.

The need to do one doesn't cancel out the need for the other. While I wouldn't agree with the entire litany of woes John lists (he makes us sound like a third-rate banana republic by suggesting our food supply is unsafe and inadequate, for instance), I would certainly grant that many issues he raises need addressing. As with infrastructure deterioration (which we can literally watch for ourselves in Rockaway just by driving under the trestle) there are things that need to be done, though they often get shunted aside or forgotten because of other priorities.

To address his concerns, Culotta wants more spending and would raise taxes to get it, with little or no regard for government waste and boondoggles.

Culotta also wants health insurers to cover more medical procedures and stop denying appeals.

He wants a medical system like the ones they have in Europe, he says (never mind that the Brits complain about long waits or that many Europeans and Canadians - another country with a national health care system - come to this country to get top-of-theline treatment or just to get treatment at all). But Culotta wants to tell us that our problems really boil down to an overemphasis on the "War on Terror."

If only our government would stop wasting its time and resources trying to preemptively get the terrorists before they get us, he seems to be saying, if only it would stop listening in on suspected terrorist phone calls!

Culotta isn't against protecting us from terrorism, of course, as his inclusion of border security and better immigration management in his litany of woes demonstrates.

He just wants us to stop focusing on it and pay more attention to everything else, all the things he believes more tax revenue can buy.

For Culotta, a vocal and frequent critic of the Bush administration, what's important is to recount the woes that beset us, padding them where necessary; in order to convince us that terrorism isn't really our most serious concern.

Terrorism and the Bush administration's emphasis on it, in his view, is a distraction.

The problem, though, is that terrorism is a lot more than that, as we learned on September 11, 2001. If the number of fatalities from terrorism doesn't yet match auto accident deaths in this country each year, or workplace incidents, perhaps we have the government's post 9/11 vigilance to thank for it? Culotta, I suspect, would be thanking them, too, if a Democrat were sitting in the White House today.


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