US President Donald Trump.
By Paul Brandus
Now I know what it must have been like to live in the early 1950s, when Sen. Joe McCarthy, the Wisconsin fear-monger, warned of the “Red Menace.” The communists are everywhere, he said, infiltrating everything, undermining our country from within! In the end, common sense prevailed. McCarthy was censured by the Senate, then faded into oblivion and was dead within three years. History proved him wrong on the facts, too.
Substitute “President Trump” for “Sen. McCarthy” and “Muslims” for “communists” and it’s deja vu all over again: We’ve got another rough-edged provocateur manipulating our fears for political gain. But this time it’s a commander in chief, and he has a huge megaphone with which to spew his paranoia. Muslims are everywhere! They’re pouring over the border (or is that Hispanics?)! They’re infiltrating everything, undermining our country from within!
Of course there were deadly threats from within during the McCarthy era, but they weren’t commies. At the height of McCarthy’s power from 1950 to 1954, for instance, nearly 1,900 Americans were killed each year by polio. Many of them were children. Our population has doubled since then, so that’s like 3,800 people a year (73 a week) being felled. Unless you were alive then, it’s hard to imagine how frightening it was.
Here’s the part where people say “Terrorism’s different.” Yet statistical probabilities are what should count. The chance of dying in a terrorist attack is tiny, so why worry about it? If I have far greater odds of getting killed by someone holding a phone or gun, isn’t it more rational to focus on that — and more irrational to focus on the statistically negligible threat? It’s really a question of whether you evaluate a situation with your heart, an emotional judgment, or your mind, a rational one.
By the way, I say this as someone who was in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 and saw the south tower of the World Trade Center get hit and collapse. I know first hand what fear looks, sounds, smells and feels like. I’ve never forgotten and never will. My heart ruled that day and did for quite a while. But as the years have passed, and not without a struggle, my mind tells me that statistically there are other things I should fear more than terrorism.
Security threats can also be evaluated in other ways. A terrorist mowing people down with a truck is a clear and present danger that must be eliminated immediately. But there are other threats that can inflict even greater damage to our country, albeit over a longer period of time. Example: Save the Children’s new End of Childhoodreport last week says the United States, pathetically, ranks just 36th in the world in terms of raising children in a safe, healthy environment and preparing them for the future.
What on earth, you might ask, does this have to do with our security? Plenty — if we just broaden our definition of what a threat is. Doesn’t raising children properly and preparing them for the future enhance our national security?
Which brings us back to McCarthy and Trump. In terms of scaring the American people, McCarthy was a narrow-minded peddler of fear. But Trump’s position makes him a worse threat. He says national security is his top priority — yet he has proposed to slash spending on scores of programs that keep us stronger and more secure. To name but two: after-school programs that help poor kids and biomedical research cuts that doctors say could slow the development of treatments for cancers and other killer diseases.
There are countless other examples of this kind of short-sightedness. Does this make us stronger or weaker? National security is about more than just knocking out terrorists.
Paul Brandus, founder and White House bureau chief of West Wing Reports, is the author of Under This Roof: The White House and the Presidencyand a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.
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