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Commentary: My High Alert Moment

Saturday, January 10, 2004

The terror alert level has been lowered from high to elevated . WNYC's Brian Lehrer says he had a High Alert Moment last week that left him wondering both about the war on terror and Americans' war on each other.

Brian Lehrer: The other night, I was surfing the cable news channels and my 11 year old son asked me why FOX kept the words Terror Alert: High' on the screen at all times. My first instinct was just to say: They do it to exploit our fears for commercial gain.

But I stopped myself, and gave a slightly more generous answer: Because this network believes we should keep the threat from our enemies uppermost in our minds. They believe that emphasis will produce the best government policies. I said, Other people also believe we should protect ourselves from our enemies, of course, but they think it warps our politics to raise that concern above all else by keeping Terror Alert: High' on the screen at all times.

Personally, if I had a tv news network, and I had to keep one factoid on the screen at all times, it would probably be how many children died in the world that day from hunger-related causes. UNICEF lists the number as around 15,000 children per day, around 30,000 from all preventable causes.

Those figures make me wonder about the proportionality of our response to 9/11. Of course drastic action needed to be taken to prevent more attacks after three thousand innocent people were murdered by religious extremists. But where is the equivalent action - and the equivalent urgency - over 30,000 preventable deaths every day?

So Terror Alert: High' as wallpaper on my tv screen? Not for me, thanks, unless there's an imminent threat or there is something we're supposed to do differently, which they always tell us there isn't.

My 11-year-old knows I have these heretical thoughts. And yet, I pulled my punch against the network to avoid making everyone who disagrees with me my enemy.

Perhaps you think this was way too diplomatic. And I'll admit, I later came to think so myself, and went back and explained to him where I thought sensationalism and commercial gain came into it.

Still, the sensibility exists, and is not just a confection of Rupert Murdoch. It came from somewhere. So if I think we should care about the root causes of terrorism, and not just flippantly dismiss it as evil, then we should also care about the root causes of the political differences Americans have in our divided nation.

So call this a new year's resolution for myself and a resolution wish for others if you like, because as this election year begins, I think our politics is sorely lacking in humility.

Hosting a weekday call-in show, I know full well how angry our politics are right now. Depending on the caller, it often seems that either Bush and company are racist, money-grubbing war criminals, or the Democrats hate America and worship the devil. The election year will only make it worse. Sometimes, the most heretical thing of all is to suggest that maybe, on many issues, they just honestly disagree. And that sometimes, they may each have a point.

Maybe, for example, the left was too complacent about Saddam Hussein's bloody tyranny, because it so could not handle the US military as the means of overthrowing him. And maybe the right has kind of lost its carrots by falling too much in love with its sticks.

So let the election year issue battles begin. I'll argue my daily child death toll against your permanent terror alert any time. And with passion. But let's draw some of our strength from humility, not just from pride.

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