Message for '08 Dems: Only cowards think we're at war

Ever since 9/11, whenever Dems try to stand up for the Constitution, protect our civil liberties, or dissent in any way, what do Republicans say? "We're at war!"

And fearing some won't understand the stakes of war, people like Senator Pat Roberts spell it out: "You don't have civil liberties when you're dead."

Democratic instincts tend to generate the following automatic response: "Even in wartime, we have to protect our civil liberties!" Very bad instincts. Because, if America really were at war, then it would of course make sense to temporarily sacrifice some liberties -- as well as other things, like tax cuts for the wealthy and good relations with Saudi monarchies.

Our soldiers are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And our intelligence forces are at war against terrorist groups around the world, in battles we only hear about when CIA spouses criticize the White House. And it's impossible to overstate the sacrifice they and their families are making.

But America is not under attack by an enemy force of any significance. We got sucker punched by 19 maniacs with box cutters. Republicans want us to run scared because of that for the rest of our lives. But the thing about a sucker punch is that you can't protect yourself against it. Any idiot can take the breath out of you, no matter how tough you are. But only cowards -- actually I think "scaredy cat" is more appropriate here -- live their lives worrying about such things. Of course you've got to do your best to stay alert -- in this context that means port, air and many other types of security. But freaking out and becoming paranoid leaves you more vulnerable, not more protected.

The American people are not cowards. They are not the ones behind this prolonged state of panic. Americans are prepared to walk tall and fearlessly even with the possibility of another attack, even though we know it could kill thousands -- because we know that America is not in danger. We live happily with many extremely-unlikely dangers in our lives, and we reject the idea that America should degrade its democracy just because some tiny extremist groups have added themselves to the list. (They are so far down that list, in fact, that you are 390 times less likely to die in a terrorist attack than in an auto accident.)

Add up all the little bands of anti-American terrorists. They can't invade America. Or any of our allies for that matter. Or anyone. They can't hurt our economy -- unless cowards in government let them. The only thing they can do is try to get in another suck punch sometime. And yeah, it will hurt. But our country, our traditions, our future have nothing to fear.

In the face of our natural American courage, some Republicans will try anything to make individuals focus on the chance of becoming victims. RNC direct mail in 2004 used pictures of children in the Breslan massacre and other scenes of terrorism. The "threat level" program tried to make the infinitesimal chance of being harmed by a terrorist feel inevitable. And many Republicans use fear in their words and speeches everyday: "The terrorists want to kill you! The terrorists want to kill you! The terrorists want to kill you!" (So do a lot of people. But they can't. So stop obsessing!)

Thinking about yourself as the potential victim of an attack is scary. "What if it's the skyscraper I work in next time?" Some of my friends who work in New York towers were fearful for a moment after 9/11. But they sucked it up and forced themselves to think rationally about how tiny the risk actually was.

In other words, they were brave. They didn't quit their skyscraper jobs. They got on with their lives. Anything less would have given those insignificant terrorists who sucker punched us way more power than they deserved -- it would have been cowardly, though it doesn't sound nice to say that. What would have happened to them if they had never pulled themselves together? Maybe they would've been sent off to therapy by their bosses, and coached to think about the risks realistically.

So should we send hysterical, terror-obsessed Republican leaders into therapy? If their fear were sincere, then: yes. But they're only pretending. If they were really scared of the next terrorist attack, then they'd try to do something to reduce the risk of one: improve port and air security and stop giving the airline and freight lobbies whatever they want. If they really thought we were "at war with the terrorists," they'd stop with the tax cuts, hold civilian contractors accountable for failures to rebuild Iraq, and get tough with governments who actually do allow terrorism to flourish within their borders, like Saudi Arabia.

Democrats can't be faulted for staying silent in the moments immediately after 9/11, when Bush established the wartime paradigm. We count on Presidents to refrain from exploiting moments of national crisis for personal and political benefit -- Bush let us down. There was simply nothing Democrats could have done to stop Bush from savaging our Democracy while the Twin Towers were still burning and America was reeling emotionally.

But now it is the duty of all patriots to put America back how it's supposed to be, and this time that job falls to Democrats. The 2008 presidential race is the only forum in which this can happen, because it is the only time an individual leader will be able to take a stand on this, personally take the Republicans to task, and explain his or her position fully to the people.

Every Democrat taking part in the '07-'08 primary spectacle will have a choice to make: accept the Republican war paradigm, pretend it's not there, or challenge it head on. Only by challenging it head on will a Democrat be able to win both the primary and the general election.

We need a Democrat in '08 to say: "If you want to live in fear, then vote for one of them. If you want to stand tall, and show the terrorists that we don't give a damn about them, then come with me."

Until that happens, we're going to loose every argument about the Constitution, civil liberties and anything else -- because you just can't win arguments against the logic of, "You don't want to DIE DO YOU?"