The Chimera of Total Security

"No one can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices."
– Edward R. Murrow

Let’s talk about the next terrorist attack.

We cannot know what form it will take, where it will occur, or what the casualty count will be. But one thing we do know: we know we’ll be told it happened because President Obama dismantled the policies of his predecessor.

Indeed, former vice president Dick Cheney has been preemptively making that case ever since he was sprung from his undisclosed location. In a spate of television interviews and a high-profile speech last week, he’s contended that Obama’s rejection of former president Bush’s strategies has left us less safe. As proof of the effectiveness of those policies, he points out that the country passed the balance of Bush’s term after Sept. 11, 2001, without another act of terrorism.

It is a specious argument.

In the first place, it’s not clear to some of us that Obama’s changes to Bush’s policies have been quite as dramatic as advertised. Yes, the president has done away with the state-sanctioned torture euphemistically referred to as "enhanced interrogation." But on other Bush policies – military tribunals and preventive detention come to mind – Obama has opted, to the consternation of civil libertarians, to tweak rather than discard.

In the second place, Cheney assumes – and asks us to accept – a causal relationship he cannot prove. Bush defenders often do that, pointing to those eight years without an incident as vindication. "He kept us safe," they are fond of saying. But if that’s the metric by which we define success, they should be lionizing Bill Clinton, too. Like his successor, he saw a foreign terrorist attack early in his presidency. Like his successor, he got through the next eight years without another one.

It’s as if a man who once had a car accident at Fifth and Main were to say the reason he hasn’t had another is because he now avoids that intersection. It’s a non sequitur dressed up as logic, assuming a causality that does not exist.

This is not to say the administration did not interdict a plot or two. But it’s a long way from that to assigning them credit for every bad thing that "didn’t" happen after Sept. 11. You cannot prove a negative.

We forget sometimes, but while the events of that day were unique in scope and scale, they were not unique in kind. To the contrary, from the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times to the 1920 bombing of Wall Street to the 1963 bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham to the 1975 bombing of La Guardia Airport to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center to the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City to the 1996 bombing of the Olympic Games in Atlanta to that bright, brittle morning in September 2001 when 3,000 people died, terror has never been a stranger to these shores.

The difference is, the 2001 attack was so vast and horrific it did what none of the others could: it caused us to reconsider the very values that make us who we are, including the right to privacy, the right to free speech and worship, the right of habeas corpus, and the right not to be waterboarded into a false confession.

If history is a guide to the future (and it is), then terrorists will hit us again, no matter who is president, no matter what policies he or she sets. Dick Cheney knows this, yet he preys on our fear with politics.

No one denies a need to take every reasonable precaution for security. But we need to get over the idea we can guarantee we are never hit again. You simply cannot make that promise and have left a country worth living in. Or as President Eisenhower reputedly said, "If you want total security, go to prison."

Some of us would prefer not to. Some of us realize that a degree of risk is inextricable from any degree of freedom.

And some of us think freedom is worth it.

(c) 2009 The Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Author: Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.