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Are We Too Concerned About National Security?

President Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Sunday night, Dec. 6, 2016.. The address came after recent attacks in Paris and California raised concerns that the U.S. and other countries aren’t doing enough to prevent terror attacks.  (Saul Loeb/AP)
President Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Sunday night, Dec. 6, 2016.. The address came after recent attacks in Paris and California raised concerns that the U.S. and other countries aren’t doing enough to prevent terror attacks. (Saul Loeb/AP)
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At what point does our concern with national security become problematic? A common answer is when that concern inspires policies that subvert the very freedoms we are trying to secure. Another, perhaps less acknowledged but equally important indicator, is when our focus on foreign threats clouds our vision of those right here at home.

On Dec. 8, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visited Sandtown-Winchester, the Baltimore neighborhood in which Freddie Gray was killed by police in April. Guided by a group of black pastors, Sanders toured the neighborhood to see firsthand the economic depression its residents confront and the street corner where Gray was loaded into the police van, memorialized by balloons, stuffed animals and a giant mural. After the tour, Sanders sat with the pastors to discuss social and political issues facing the black community.

obviously ISIS and terrorism are a huge national issue that we've got to address. But so are poverty, so is unemployment, so is education, so is health care...

Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.)

Just before the press conference that followed, Sanders’ press secretary instructed attending reporters, “Don't ask about ISIS today. I mean, it's not on topic.” Yet, during the press conference, CNN’s Dan Merica asked Sanders point blank, “Is there a reason that you do not want to talk about ISIS?"

Sanders responded with an indignant laugh and, turning to the pastors surrounding him on stage, asked them: “How often are these people [the press] talking about the issues that we talked about today?” He went on to say, “Obviously ISIS and terrorism are a huge national issue that we've got to address. But so are poverty, so is unemployment, so is education, so is health care, so is the need to protect working families.”

Both MSNBC and NBC News put a negative spin on Sanders’ response, generally reducing his refusal to engage the question to a hissy fit thrown by some messy-haired guy from Vermont who clearly never attended political finishing school. The Christian Science Monitor suggested the response was a “bad move,” and that Sanders is addressing economic issues “to the exclusion of other top issues.”

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks with preachers and reporters aboard a bus as he tours the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. Sanders toured areas where unrest folded following the funeral of Freddie Gray and met with African-American civic and religious leaders to discuss issues affecting the African-American community. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks with preachers and reporters aboard a bus as he tours the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. Sanders toured areas where unrest folded following the funeral of Freddie Gray and met with African-American civic and religious leaders to discuss issues affecting the African-American community. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

But those aren’t the things I saw. I saw a political candidate understandably frustrated by the myopic focus of the media rather than limited by some myopia of his own. Most importantly, I saw a presidential candidate who, from a political climate ablaze with fear and fixated on the threat of terrorist attacks, has the perspective to acknowledge that domestic issues threatening Americans’ security are every bit as important as threats from abroad.

My political consciousness sprouted under the harsh conditions of collapsing World Trade Towers. The eruption of nationalism, the obsession with security and the scourge of Islamophobia are aftershocks we still feel strongly today. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 40 percent of Americans consider national security and terrorism to be the “top issue” for federal government, 19 percent higher than when the poll was conducted in April (presumably due to the Paris attacks).

This, even though about 53 percent of deaths due to terrorist actions against the U.S. from 1969 to 2009 occurred on a single highly anomalous day; even though, since 9/11, Americans have been as likely to die being crushed by our own furniture as at the hands of a terrorist; even though, as of October this year, there had been 24 jihadist attack-related deaths in the U.S. between 2005 and 2015 compared to 375 mass shooting deaths in 2015 alone; even though there has been an increase in recent years of homegrown extremist right-wing violence, which has claimed far more lives in the U.S. than Islamic terrorism; even though an estimated 678,000 Americans die prematurely each year from the effects of a poor diet.

Maybe it’s OK to not ask about ISIS for a day.

I dream of a time when a political candidate can maintain electability while flat-out saying that America is largely responsible for the development of ISIS; that our responsibility to assist in efforts to dismantle the terrorist group extends far beyond our own security to the people facing direct, immediate and daily peril from the organization; that American foreign policy may very well be the U.S.’s greatest national security risk. Today is not that day, and I don’t see it coming soon.

Maybe it’s OK to not ask about ISIS for a day.

But today is a day when a presidential candidate is saying that America faces a security threat from its own domestic policies. By shirking a politically expedient opportunity to talk about national security and making the claim that these domestic threats are as important as ISIS, Sanders is pushing an envelope that needs pushing. There is plenty of talk about ISIS and terrorism from politicians and pundits. What we need is more talk about the problems Sanders saw in Baltimore — the shortage of grocery stores at which to purchase healthy food; the scarcity of low-income housing; the lack of jobs; the harsh realities of racism.

These things are killing Americans, too. And even though they kill far more of us than terrorists, we fear them less. Terrorism gets its name for a reason. Attacks are unpredictable, sudden and sometimes gruesome. But they are also extraordinarily rare — far rarer than uninhabitable buildings, food deserts and itchy American trigger fingers.

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Amée LaTour Cognoscenti contributor
Amee LaTour is a freelance writer in Vermont

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