Two years later, we need to reexamine our priorities.

ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF 9/11 It’s been two years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Isn’t it time we Americans put the events of that day into more realistic perspective? Approximately 3,000 people died on September 11, 2001, killed by terrorists who belonged to an organization that, by the most liberal estimates, had no more than a few thousand members. For those who lost loved ones on 9/11, it was a day of horror leading to lifelong sorrow, and the anniversary of that day will justly be the cause of sadness and pain forever. For the rest of us, that day was a reminder that there are bad people in the world who want to hurt Americans in order to make some kind of point. But that should not have struck anyone as news. The fact of the matter is, what happened on September 11, 2001, was not an American tragedy, even though it was a personal tragedy for many Americans. At no time on that day or on any day since has America as a nation been in any kind of danger, the way it would be in a war with a full-size enemy like China or Russia. At no time on that day or on any day since have the great mass of Americans been in any kind of danger from the terrorists. Despite the predictable comparisons, September 11, 2001 was not the same as December 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor was a prelude to a war that threatened the very existence of our country. The same cannot be said of 9/11, bad as it was. Yes, our president has declared a War on Terrorism. But in reality, terrorism never declared war on us--unless you think it is meaningful when the gnat declares war on the elephant. In the larger scheme of things, September 11, 2001 was not, for the United States as a whole, a history-changing day. At least, we should not have let it be. Out of 290 million citizens, 3,000 died in the terrorist attacks. But in fact, every day, over 6,500 Americans die of something. Every day, cancer and heart disease alone kill 3,400 Americans. In other words, every day is a tragedy for thousands of Americans, but we do not obsess about each of these ordinary death-dealing days the way we obsess about 9/11. We do not lapse into paranoia about cancer and heart disease the way we do about terrorists. And yet terrorists are mere gnats compared to the things that kill most Americans. Let us put death in America into perspective: This year 700,000 Americans will die from heart disease; more than 540,000 will die from cancer; about 160,000 will die from strokes; 68,000 will die from diabetes; 49,000 will die from Alzheimer’s Disease; and 15,000 will die of AIDS. Each year, over 40,000 Americans die in traffic accidents, of whom 16,000 are killed in accidents in which alcohol was a factor. Each year, approximately 30,000 Americans are killed by handguns. Approximately 17,000 of these are suicides. Each year, about 16,000 Americans will be murdered. More than 5,000 will die in their workplace. In death’s broad vision, 3,000 is simply not a very large number. And yet look how this nation has responded to the death-dealing of 9/11/2001. It has encouraged a level of paranoia usually reserved for times of full-scale war. It has generated legislation that threatens our civil liberties, giving the federal government access to our homes and private lives unprecedented except in times of war. It has led to the subversion of international rules of justice in our own courts, as we imprison uncharged suspects for indefinite terms, without access to representation. And finally, some in Washington have encouraged and exploited our paranoia in order to initiate a neoconservative war in Iraq that has killed thousands more innocent people, Iraqis and Americans and others--a war that is costing us -- by the estimate of Donald Rumsfeld himself -- at least four billion dollars a month. Imagine what damage we might do to Death if we spent four billion dollars a month fighting heart disease and cancer. Imagine if we spent four billion dollars a month fighting diabetes and Alzheimers and AIDS and mental illness. Imagine if we spent four billion dollars, just one time, putting inebriation testers in every American automobile, so no drunk driver could start his car, or if we spent four billion dollars putting a lock on every handgun. Think of the lives we’d save if we spent four billion dollars a month fighting a war against pneumonia alone. We would save lives far beyond the number that died on 9/11. After 9/11, it was appropriate to exact revenge on Al Qaida, and perhaps even on the Taliban, in Afghanistan. It was appropriate to tighten our surveillance of temporary immigrants in this country and to more closely guard our borders and our airports. But we have taken our reaction to 9/11 far beyond that, into the realm of insane overreaction. This is not to minimize the loss of those who died in the World Trade towers or in the Pentagon or in that field in Pennsylvania when they, no doubt heroically, brought down a hijacked jet headed for the White House. Nor is it to minimize the grief of those they left behind. But death has many agents, and for lethal scope, terrorists run far behind germs and drink and blind bad luck. We have elevated terrorists to the level of far more deadly killers, and squandered our resources to feed our paranoia. It is time we woke up and delivered ourselves from our fear. On this, the second anniversary of 9/11, let us honor those who died by revising our priorities. Instead of inventing new foes to kill and new ways to kill them, let us set ourselves against the old foes--foes like disease and mental illness and domestic homicide. The lives then saved will be a fitting memorial to the lives lost.

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