Thinking First

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(HOST) Commentator Peter Gilbert is glad that Congress is once again considering how best to respond to the recommendations of the September Eleventh Commission.

(GILBERT) It’s high time we thought about how our country should respond if it suffers another terrorist attack. It’s important to do so before a crisis – before emotions and quite legitimate fears combine with overheated rhetoric, anger and the desire for revenge to divert us, perhaps, from acting as wisely as we otherwise might.

In an interview on the first anniversary of 9/11 General Tommy Franks, then head of the American forces in Afghanistan, identified the worst thing that he thought might happen in our country. He feared that another terrorist attack might cause, quote, “our population to question our own Constitution and to begin to militarize our country in order to”…make it more secure. The result, he said, would be, quote, “that the western world…loses what it cherishes most, and that is freedom and liberty that we’ve seen a couple hundred years in this grand experiment that we call democracy.”

General Franks’s comments, combined with the common assertion that it’s not a matter of if we are attacked again but when, should cause significant concern and stimulate discussion.

If Americans understand in advance that another terrorist attack would likely give rise to a desire, as Franks says, to, quote, “begin to militarize our country,” then we can be more thoughtful and deliberate in our response – even in the heat of the moment.

The reality of another 9/11 tragedy – the vivid images (broadcast literally ad nauseum) and the stories of human loss – could not help but have a powerful effect on our emotions and our thinking. And well they should. The challenge is to ensure that our passions do not overwhelm our analysis of the situation. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we do nothing.

Throughout history, citizens have lost freedom two ways – by having it taken away (by outside or inside forces) and by giving it away. I’ve heard it said that in the wake of another attack, our society will willingly – happily – give up some of its freedom in return for even the possibility of greater security.

Even in the US, individual rights such as freedom of speech have historically waxed and waned with the perceived risks to national security. The terrorist threat we face now may be with us not for a few years, as World War I or II were, but for a very long time. What will we urge our legislators to do? What should we urge them to do, and not do?

The security dangers are real enough now, let alone what they may be in the future. But General Franks seems to be saying that the greatest thing we have to fear is, as President Franklin Roosevelt said over seventy years ago, fear itself. By naming the fear, Roosevelt went a long way toward taming it. We should do the same thing today.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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