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November 2001

Poll-uting Public Debate

By Matthew Robinson

Anyone who doubts the negative effects of public opinion polls need look no further than ABC News and The Washington Post.

In the wake of last month's devastating terrorist attacks, the two media giants released a poll showing that the damage from September 11 could go well beyond lost lives and property - the shockwaves may tear through the Constitution and American liberties, too.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released September 13 found that 71 percent of those surveyed favor the idea of "giving up some of Americans' personal liberties and privacy" to make it easier for the FBI to investigate suspected terrorists.

Of course, the press made much of the results. But at this time of critical public deliberation, at this moment of maximum danger, such a poll is distorting, distracting, and misleading.

By casting post-Sept. 11 policy options as a choice between patriotic sacrifice and selfish liberty, pollsters and their lazy interpreters in the press create a false dichotomy.

Pollsters, in fact, lend nothing to public debate or policy deliberation by asking the American people to give up unknown liberties regardless of the cost for the promise of security and safety. As a matter of good social science, the ABC/Washington Post poll is meaningless.

The choice for a free people isn't whether to become submissive in exchange for safety. The choice is whether we will to bow before the enemies of freedom in a moment of fear or stand tall, like the heroes of Flight 93, and remember what Americans are willing to fight and die for.

The questions now before the American people are these: Are we willing to surrender liberties to the same government that failed to stop the terrorist strikes in the first place? Or should we be asking more critical questions about how it happened, who failed, and who is accountable?

In truth, many of the problems running up to September 11 stem from government incompetence - a problem not easily remedied by new laws.

Consider:

The Border Patrol and the INS failed to stop the men from entering the country. They failed to communicate with other agencies to detect the terrorists. The government consistently failed to follow up on lapsed visas, detect false documents, and shut down money flows.

The Department of Justice had at least two of the terrorists on its watch list, but had no procedure to share the information with the airlines.

Once the terrorists entered the United States, the FBI failed to enlist the aid of local law enforcement. Worst of all, even with some advanced warning, federal bureaucrats failed to act in time.

All of these disasters are summed up in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, who Justice officials suspect was planning to be the fifth hijacker on Flight 93. The FBI detained Moussaoui, a 46-year-old from Morocco, for immigration violations on August 17. He was picked up after proprietors of an Eagan, Minn.-flight school notified authorities of Moussaoui's suspicious behavior.

Moussaoui said he only wanted to know how to steer a Boeing 747, even though he had never even flown solo in a single-engine plane. In addition, Moussaoui offered to pay the $8,000 class fee in cash. When he was arrested, agents found among his belongings a manual on crop-dusting.

Despite all of that, Justice officials refused to request a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant - a simple move that might have led the FBI to the plot.

Is this a government we want to trust with more power over our lives? Or should we demand it execute the laws already on the books?

ABC News and the Washington Post aren't interested in such questions. Instead, they have created a one-sided debate that demands more of the people and little of government.

Benjamin Franklin warned his countrymen and his posterity, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

America has remained largely free of terrorism because of its liberties and our Constitution, not in spite of them. If we surrender our essential liberty - even in our political rhetoric - we risk suicide bombing the very fount of our nation's greatness. And that, all along, is the real target of terrorist strikes.

Matthew Robinson is author of Mobocracy: How the Media's Obsession with Polling Twists the News, Alters Elections and Undermines Democracy and an adjunct fellow with the Claremont Institute.

 

 

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