Commentary: Freedom means living with risks

The Miami HeraldMay 11, 2010 

We always seem surprised.

Even after Oct. 1, 1910, when a bomb destroyed the Los Angeles Times building and killed 20 men.

And Nov. 24, 1917, when 10 people died in the bombing of a police station in Milwaukee.

And Sept. 16, 1920, when 38 people lost their lives in a bombing on Wall Street.

And May 18, 1927, when 45 people, most of them children, died in a school bombing in Bath Township, Mich.

And Sept. 15, 1963, when four little girls died in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

And Feb. 26, 1993, when a bomb in a basement of the World Trade Center left six people dead.

And April 19, 1995 when a truck bomb destroyed a federal building in Oklahoma City, claiming 168 lives.

And Sept. 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 people were killed by hijackers who used captured jetliners as guided missiles.

Even after all those episodes and dozens more, we always seem surprised, always persist in believing the unbelievable: terrorism happens in other places, it doesn't happen here.

No, it's never said in those words. Rather it is something said between the words, something audible in the indignant tone of the news anchor, something seen in the shocked eyes of the bystander, something felt in the chambers of one's own heart where one is surprised — and surprised to be.

Because terrorism doesn't happen here. And when it does, it feels as if the universe is playing with marked cards and loaded dice. It feels as if you've been cheated somehow by this reminder that we are, indeed, the world — and the world is a dangerous place.

But American innocence is a renewable resource. So the events of last week, the close call wherein a would-be terrorist left a crude car bomb in Times Square that luckily, blessedly, failed to explode, will eventually recede, leaving room for a new round of shocked indignation next time the reminder comes.

Meantime, we shake our heads at the closeness of the call, lionize the vigilant street vendors and the fast-acting cop who averted disaster, and begin trying to figure out how the system failed us. That it did, we have no doubt. That someone blew it is an article of faith. Already, there are questions about how suspect Faisal Shahzad managed to board a plane and almost leave the country after the near bombing despite having been placed on the no-fly list.

Obviously, we must do everything practical and possible to thwart terrorists and protect lives. But the bitter fact is that, though we succeed a hundred times, eventually we will fail. This is the thing no one says as they go about "fixing" what went wrong. The idea seems to be that if we can just perfect the system, we guarantee nothing bad will ever happen again.

This was the subtext of all those people lauding President Bush because he "kept us safe" after Sept. 11. It was an unbearably naive assertion, born of a stubborn refusal to learn what the rest of the world already knows.

Which is that senseless violence is not an aberration of life but a part of it. So no matter how you tweak the system, we will always be vulnerable. Indeed, more so because we are free. And no system consistent with that freedom could have stopped a fanatic from driving a bomb into Times Square. Note that even the questions being raised now concern what happened after Shahzad allegedly placed his bomb.

There's a saying: I'd rather be lucky than good. Last week, we were both. But at some point, we will be neither.

So what can you do? The answer is that you do the best you can, take what precautions you can, and then you get on with it, learn to live with the risk freedom entails. You accept that risk because freedom is worth it.

And because living in fear is a contradiction in terms.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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