"Is this all there is?

In Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, a pedestrian is more likely to be hit by a bicyclist than by an automobile. That’s because cycling is a favored way of getting around a city famous for its canals. Whereas in most places in the United States the sight of someone going to work on a bike is the exception, in Amsterdam it’s the rule. You can’t help but notice that cycling is an integral part of life in that Dutch city.

And after you notice that, you will see something else: almost no one riding a bike in Amsterdam wears a crash helmet. An American is likely to find this surprising, since you hardly see one of us on two wheels without a protective shell strapped to our skull. Bicycling, it seems, is more dangerous here than in the Netherlands. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.

The Dutch disdain for crash helmets came to mind during our recent flurry of enforced remembrance concerning the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I’m not sure what it is about a span of five that has made this anniversary so necessary unless, of course, it’s that this is an election year and an opportunity for voters to pass a certain kind of judgment on whether or not we think our elected officials are doing all they can to keep us safe.

Keeping us safe has become a kind of mantra, invoked by politicians of both parties. Republicans, led by President Bush, claim the War on Terror is the way to do it. The president has used the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks for a series of speeches in which he has done his best to both frighten and reassure us about the terrorist threat. They’re out there, they’re evil, and they’re scheming to get us, the president says. That’s why our army is in Iraq. Fighting the terrorists there so we don’t have to fight them here.

Meanwhile, the Democrats claim that the war in Iraq has distracted us from doing what really needs to be done to keep us safe. Our borders aren’t secure, they say. Practically nothing has been done to inspect cargo entering the country, or to sufficiently protect our transportation, communications or energy systems. They point to the neglected recommendations regarding national security made by the bi-partisan 9/11 Commission and argue that the country remains vulnerable to terrorist attack.

Then I pick up a magazine and turn to an ad for a new TV show on the Discovery Channel starring Walter Cronkite wannabe Ted Koppel. The ad says: “Right after 9/11 it was all about security…why hadn’t someone connected the dots? Since 9/11, the pendulum has swung back. Now people are wondering whether their privacy and constitutional guarantees may be at risk. What is the price of security? How much are we willing to give up? We wanted to raise and discuss those issues before the next attack, and that’s one thing that almost all the experts agree on: There will be a next attack.”

You know that if there were a crash helmet for terrorism, just about every man, woman and child in America would be wearing one.

But in a recent article in the journal Foreign Affairs, John Mueller asks what he calls a heretical question: If it is as easy to pull off a terrorist attack in the United States as our leaders say it is, and if the terrorists themselves are as demonically competent as we have been led to believe, then why have they not done it? Mueller points out that while there have been no terrorist incidents in the past five years, it is also worth remembering that there were no terrorist attacks in the five years before 9/11, a time when the United States was doing much less to protect itself. Recalling how two misfits with a rifle managed to terrorize vast numbers of people in the Washington, D.C. area in 2002, Mueller notes that the government’s protective measures would have to be almost perfect to thwart all such crimes – and, given the government’s failure to deal with Hurricane Katrina, expectations of such perfection seem far-fetched.

Mueller acknowledges that terrorists and terror gangs like al Qaeda are murderous and that more terrorist attacks are possible. Then he writes: “But while keeping such potential dangers in mind, it is worth remembering that the total number of people killed since 9/11 by al Qaeda or al Qaeda-like operatives outside Afghanistan and Iraq is not much higher than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States in a single year, and that the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000 – about the same chance of being killed by a comet or meteor…The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy  that scarcely exists.”

The attacks on 9/11 reinforced a paranoid streak that lies close to the surface in many Americans. It confirmed their belief that the world is essentially a dangerous place and that this country would be better off if our government policies and way of life reflect this fact. Whether thinking this way actually reduces the risk of bad things happening is probably impossible to prove. Wearing a crash helmet is a demonstrably good idea if you fall off your bike. But does strapping one on make cycling itself any safer? 




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