Is America truly at war, or is the talk of the war on terror just a clever politician's ploy to distract the electorate from the real problems confronting the nation? How you answer that question is probably as good a predictor of how you're going to cast your vote as any. President Bush and the GOP gambled the Republican convention on the judgment that a majority of Americans believe we have real enemies who have already proved they want to destroy us, and we must hunt them down and destroy them first. The Democrats are banking on the proposition that Americans are more worried about losing their jobs and health insurance than they are about terrorists attacking again on U.S. soil.
In his acceptance speech last week, President Bush talked about education, Social Security, prescription drugs and tax cuts, in addition to the war on terror. But no one who watched the convention could have any doubts that the Republicans view this as a wartime election with only one issue that should be decisive. John Kerry and the Democrats, on the other hand, have tried their best to portray themselves as fit to protect the country if need be, but their campaign rhetoric makes clear the Democrats are more intent on waging class warfare than a war on terror. They're counting on the memories of Sept. 11, 2001, to have long receded by Nov. 2, 2004.
So which candidate should voters believe? The dilemma for the American voter reminds me of Pascal's wager. Blaise Pascal, the 17th French philosopher, posited a mind experiment that seems an apt metaphor for this year's election. In deciding whether to believe in God or not, Pascal argued, the wise man bet on God's existence -- and lived his life accordingly. If God didn't exist and a man lived as if He did, the man lost nothing. But if God existed and a man behaved as if He did not, then that man faced eternal damnation -- a bad wager indeed.
Think of it this way: Can you afford to bet your life and your family's that the Democrats are right -- even if you think they have the better answers on economic and social issues? If the Democrats turn out to be wrong and the real threat to the country is not a faltering economy or millions of uninsured but an ideologically driven network of Islamist fanatics who will stop at nothing to destroy us, then we could be committing national suicide by electing a candidate who wants to repeal the Patriot Act and defer to the United Nations or our putative allies before taking military action.
I can just hear the objections from loyal Democrats now. How do you know that betting on Bush won't make us less safe? The war in Iraq, they argue, has inflamed the Arab world and created more terrorists, who now have legitimate reason to want to destroy us. If we just left them alone and minded our own business, Democrats would say we'd be safer than we are with Bush picking fights around the globe.
Tell that to the families of the six men and women who died in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, or the parents of a 9-year-old girl gunned down by terrorists in the Rome airport or an elderly man thrown overboard in his wheelchair on the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985, or the American soldiers killed at the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin in 1986. George Bush wasn't even president when these acts occurred, nor were U.S. troops occupying any Muslim nations. And still the terrorists hated us, tracked us down and killed us where they could.
There is no way the United States can ever retreat sufficiently to appease the terrorists. In fact, appeasement would only embolden them further. The only safe course is to take the terrorists at their word. They say they want to annihilate us; we should believe them. We are at war, whether we like it or not. Our only choice is to defeat the enemy -- preferably on his territory, not ours.
Universal health insurance, free prescription drugs and a higher minimum wage simply don't measure up as voting issues when the nation's security and our citizens' lives are at risk.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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