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Americans Learn to Live With Risks
An essay by NPR's Scott Simon

audio Listen to Simon's essay.

NPR's Scott Simon
Scott Simon

Nov. 3, 2001 -- Second-guessing is a great American game. Our fascination with baseball in this World Series season has to do with fans being able to play over other possibilities in our minds. What if Curt had not been lifted for Kim? What if Brenly had brought in Morgan? The fun is all in the unprovable.

But public officials can't join in. Many of them, especially now, have to make hard and fast decisions that affect human lives -- that could, in fact, cost human lives. The FBI and California Governor Gray Davis have been criticized for telling the American public that there is plausible intelligence information that suggests that new terrorist attacks could occur over the next few days.

Now there are sound reasons not to trumpet much about such threats. Publicly strengthening security in one area, such as securing the Golden Gate Bridge with National Guard units, could just steer terrorists into taking their schemes to less protected places. Advertising potential threats could risk exposing the sources of those reports -- be it satellite photos, intercepted phone calls or spies -- and give terrorists a glimpse of what amounts to the circuit board of allied intelligence.

"In a score of ways that might have seemed unimaginable a couple of months ago, Americans have learned how to live their lives with imminence of some risk."

Scott Simon

But in the absence of knowing the unknowable, many Americans have told reporters that they welcome being told in a blunt and frank manner about threats to their safety. Some of the criticism coming from journalists has been especially hard to figure. You may wonder how many news organizations would have urgently reported that they had plausible information about a forthcoming attack and then defended their decision from any disapproval by saying, “Well, the public has a right to know.”

The FBI and Governor Davis have been second-guessed for potentially encouraging a sense of panic, but are there signs of panic? Record crowds have continued to surge into Yankee Stadium. People have continued to commute over California's glorious bridges at about the same pace. Most Americans are probably still opening their mail with their fingers. People are flying across the country and tourists are riding up at the observation decks of the Empire State Building and Sears Tower. In a score of ways that might have seemed unimaginable a couple of months ago, Americans have learned how to live their lives with imminence of some risk.

In dictatorships, tyrants and monarchs keep information to themselves and dole it out to their citizens like candy to reward children for obedient behavior. But citizens of the United States are supposed to be regarded as adults who cherish their right to exercise, in new ways now, the right to make their own decisions about their own lives.

Scott Simon is host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday.