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Hey Rudy, we’re not wimps!

ARE WE A NATION of irrational wimps? Rudy Giuliani thinks so. On Tuesday, he claimed that if we elect a Democrat to the presidency, we should expect more 9/11-style attacks. This, he assumes, is enough to scare the pants off the voting public and send them scurrying frantically off to support Republicans such as ... well, Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani’s line of argument -- though “argument” is too generous a word -- isn’t new. Since 9/11, our political leaders have proceeded on the assumption that Americans are cringing, cowardly souls more than ready, when we hear the word “terrorism,” to suspend our critical capacities, mortgage our futures and jettison our civil liberties and our principles -- all for impossible assurances of “safety.” The awful thing is, many of us obediently conformed to this condescending stereotype. The United States is the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world, but after 9/11, many of us started to act as if we’re in danger of imminent extinction.

We’re not.

The 9/11 attacks were appalling and tragic, but they did not threaten the survival of the nation. The year 2001 aside, total deaths (not just of Americans) caused by international terrorism worldwide have never exceeded -- or even approached -- 2,000 a year. Sept. 11 was an outlier: On 9/11, a group of brutal, extremist Islamic thugs got very lucky. Even Osama bin Laden couldn’t have imagined that the Twin Towers would collapse, killing nearly 3,000 people.

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Of course, 3,000 dead is 3,000 too many. But keep it in perspective. As a nation, we have survived far worse. We lost more than 100,000 Americans in World War I, more than 400,000 in World War II, 37,000 in Korea, 58,000 in Vietnam -- all without allowing our national character to turn into quivering jelly.

Every year, we also lose millions of Americans to preventable accidents and disease. We’re more likely to die on the road than as a result of Al Qaeda’s machinations. Annually, we lose some 43,000 people to auto accidents. For the grieving families, that’s 43,000 deaths too many. But, although we surely could reduce auto fatalities if we chose to make it our top national priority, the Bush administration has yet to announce a “War on Highway Deaths.”

After 9/11, the Republican line was that all future terror attacks on U.S. soil must be prevented at any cost. That’s the line Giuliani was parroting this week, but its effectiveness hinges on our collective willingness to let fear swamp our capacity to reason.

Contrast the Republican response to 9/11 with the Republican response to the Virginia Tech massacre. After the shootings, when many commentators suggested that we might consider tighter gun control regulations, most GOP leaders were outraged: The right to bear arms is sacred! The massacre didn’t occur because guns are easy to obtain but because the shooter was mentally disturbed, and if he hadn’t had access to guns, he’d have found some other way to kill people! No legislation can completely protect us against maniacs!

In a way, they’re right. Not about every detail -- their interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is dubious, and stricter gun regulations might at least reduce the frequency of mass shootings. But they’re right to say that the cost of eliminating some harms may be just too high. And in the end, not every harm can be prevented. We probably could reduce school shootings by making schools resemble “supermax” prisons, but is that what we want? Anyway, then homicidal maniacs would just start shooting up shopping malls instead. Take away the guns, and sooner or later someone may well decide to make a Molotov cocktail.

To quote Donald Rumsfeld, “Stuff happens.” Giuliani’s right; if we elect a Democrat to the presidency, there will likely be future terrorist attacks on the United States. But there will likely be attacks under Republicans as well. There will always be people who want to hurt us, and some of them will succeed. We can take sensible, clearheaded precautions to reduce the frequency and severity of attacks, but we need to coolly assess the trade-offs and recognize that we can’t entirely eliminate all risk.

Ironically, just as Giuliani was suggesting that presidents should be evaluated on their ability to keep terrorist attacks down to zero, President Bush was insisting on the opposite principle -- at least when it comes to Iraq. Expressing frustration with those who see the continued bombings in Iraq as evidence of administration failures, he insisted that some level of violence is “acceptable.” When the interviewer asked if he was saying that “zero violence” is an unattainable goal, Bush agreed: "[I]f the standard of success is no

George and Rudy, you guys really need to talk.

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rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com


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