Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

GOP message: 'Be afraid, America. Be very very afraid'

Remember the last half-hour of "Titanic"?

They've hit the iceberg, the realization begins to set in that the ship is soon going to sink into the icy waters of the North Atlantic and all hell breaks loose. The veneer of civilization falls away. Wild-eyed men shove aside women and children for a spot on a lifeboat. The third-class passengers are locked down below to meet the fate that God ordained for them. Lifeboats swamp because they are overcrowded; others shove away half-empty. Amid the wailing, one officer raises a pistol to his temple and pulls the trigger rather than face what's coming. It's a brilliant depiction of the human animal in mass panic.

Well, that's kinda what it felt like watching last night's Republican debate. You could practically smell the stench of fear through your television set, and as the minutes went by, it became more and more clear that among this crowd at least, the terrorists have already won a smashing victory. They've succeeded in creating so much fear that rationality and a sense of proportion have disappeared, replaced by ...

"Shut down the Internet! Call out the National Guard! Ban all Muslims! Ban all immigrants! Carpet-bomb 'em! Screw the Geneva Conventions! Let the government spy on us -- hell, MAKE the government spy us, Constitution be damned!"

And on and on it went:

"Are you willing to give a bombing order that you know will kill hundreds if not thousands of innocent women and children?" the candidates were asked, and they practically stomped on each other in their eagerness to prove their bloodthirst. "Are you willing to risk World War III with Russia?" and again, with one or two exceptions, the stampede was on.

I know this might be a hopelessly unfashionable thing to say, but we are NOT passengers on the RMS Titanic, and we're not all about to die. We're here at home, on dry land, protected by the Atlantic on one side, the Pacific on the other. We have Canada to the north and Mexico to the south, with the most powerful military ever known and a rapidly declining rate of violent crime. Today, your odds of dying in a violent attack of any kind are half what they were just 20 years ago.

In fact, no American at any previous point in our nation's history has ever been more secure against threats of all kinds than you are today. It's not even a debatable point. So if you're nonetheless running around with deep fear in your heart, maybe you should think about who put it there and why you let them do it.

Nobody thought it worth mentioning last night -- it might have destroyed the mood of the evening -- but in the 14 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, a grand total of 45 Americans have been killed by jihadists in this country, a sum that includes the San Bernardino and Fort Hood attacks. It's easy to say that's too many, and it is. But it is also fewer than four a year.  In an open society threatened by fanatics willing to strap suicide bombs to their chests, that number does not represent failure, and the steps that it would take to ratchet the number down from four to zero would turn this into a country that you would not recognize.

For comparison's sake, we lost some 430 Americans in auto accidents over the recent Thanksgiving holiday alone. Twenty-six Americans have been killed by lightning this year, a number that takes us only through August. Based on the results of a Harvard study, some 2,700 of our fellow Georgians will die unnecessarily this year because thanks to state officials out to make a political point, we have refused to give them the Medicaid coverage that would help save their lives, because we supposedly can't afford it.

But apparently, based on last night's debate, we can spend trillions on another war in the Middle East, chasing the illusion of perfect security even though we know in the part of our brain that is still rational that such wars do not produce additional security, but only additional chaos.

You hear a lot of talk these days that we're not the country that we used to be, and for the most part I think that's garbage. In many ways, we're better than we've ever been. But this eagerness to wallow in fear, to demand a government large enough and intrusive enough to provide perfect security, eliminating all risk -- this is indeed something new and troubling.

Get a grip, America.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.