Friday, July 16, 2004

The White House claims that we are safer

The current (7/16) White House Weekly Review claims that over the past three years, the American people have become safer. It doesn't say what measure of safety is being used in making that statement.

Presumably this refers to safety from terrorism. Yet the Homeland Security Terror Alert indicator seems to be stuck on Yellow. So what are they really claiming?

For an analysis of the speech in which Bush makes the America-is-safer claim, see Fred Kaplan's Bush's Foreign Fantasy - The president thinks the world is safer than it was three years ago. Which world is he living in? in Slate.

Many have argued that I should lighten up, that this is just political rhetoric.

No doubt that it is. Web WordNet 2.0 defines rhetoric as "using language effectively to please or persuade" -- presumably in contrast to using language to express meaning. When politicians use language for purely rhetorical effect, I think they should be called on it. If political speech has become meaningless, why bother with it at all.

Certainly politicians must address people's hopes and fears. But they should be honest about what they are saying. When they make what looks like factual claims, they should be held to their statements.

A statement to the effect that we are safer now than three years ago should ultimately refer to reality. A statement such as "I know you are worried about safety (but I haven't really done anything about it)" is a lot different from "I know you are worried about safety and here are the concrete ways in which you are safer now than three years ago." The second statement lets people judge for themselves whether those concrete specifics are effective.

Even better would be a statement such as "Here is how we are measuring safety (e.g., number of terrorist incidents, number of people injured or killed in terrorist incidents, number of foiled terrorist incidents, etc.)." Here are the statistics from three years ago, and here are the statistics for today. Clearly we are safer now than three years ago.

On those grounds Bush can certainly make the case that we haven't had a 9/11 incident since 9/11, so we must be safer now than then. Is that what he has in mind?

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