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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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September 13, 2006 9:09 AM

The Rick Steves Guide to terrorism in the world

Posted by David Postman

Last Thursday I was at Channel 9 to appear on KCTS Connects to talk about the elections. Before the political panel went on, host Enrique Cerna first interviewed former Sen. and 9/11 Commissioner Slade Gorton on the state of the world. That interview was on tape.

Then as I and the other pundits watched on a TV in the green room, Cerna was in the studio interviewing travel writer Rick Steves "on how America is handling the war on terror." Steves has written some in the local papers about his political view of the world and it is a distinctly liberal view. He's criticized President Bush's foreign policy and supports legalizing marijuana. He said in an op-ed column in this paper:

The greatest risk to our society today is not Islamo-fascist terrorism, but the people who use that term to scare us.

And he's made it clear before that he's not worried about any commercial backlash from his being outspoken.

"I have a responsibility to be a good citizen and to be outspoken," he said. "And not to worry about someone who doesn't want to use my guidebooks."

But when he started talking with Cerna I admit to being surprised at what he said. Steves said that we should get used to hundreds or thousands of Americans being killed by terrorists each year. Steves' point was that America is essentially "spending" lives of its citizens as the price for being a military superpower. He compared victims of terrorism to victims of gun violence in the country.

Here's the verbatim of what he said:

"I think we're 300 million people and if we lose a few hundred people a year to terrorists, that doesn't change who we are and it shouldn't change the fabric of our society. Frankly I think we should get used to losing — as long as we're taking the stance in the world of being the military superpower, you're going to have people nipping at you. And if it's hundreds or thousands — we lose 15,000 people a year to have the right to bear arms and most people think that's a good deal, year after year. We spend 15,000 people for the right to bear arms. What do we spend to be as aggressive and heavy weight on this planet? We're always going to have terrorism."

Steves told Cerna that he thinks the role of the travel writer changed after 9/11. He said it's a more serious job now, but compared it to a court jester of medieval times — someone charged with delivering sometimes bad news to powerful people.

Steves made a provocative counterpoint to Gorton. He certainly said things you don't usually hear in the mainstream media. Some of what he said was startling. At times he sounded almost flip. I think if thousands of people a year were killed in America by terrorists it would, and should, change the fabric of who we are. Steves also made points we've heard before, but perhaps it jumped out at me because it came from that mild-mannered, Mr. Rogers-like character that we've come to rely on for the good restaurant tips in London, not a leftist, geo-political critique.

Whatever the case, it seemed worth repeating here some of what he said.

Steves said America overestimates itself and doesn't give enough credit to its enemies:

"I'm really concerned right now when I listen to Slade Gorton. He's very committed to the safety of our nation and all of this, of course. But I'm afraid in all this talk of, 'we must not be complacent,' that we're forgetting, we're underestimating, the spine of the people we're fighting.

"I'm amazed, and this is what I learned from history, that we can think that other people can have less spine than we do. We don't have more spine than they do. Nathan Hales, Ethan Allens and Patrick Henrys are a dime a dozen on this planet. And we forget that. We think we're going to exhaust them and break their spirit. And with our military might we're going to cause them to stop naming their children Osama and Saddam."

Americas, he said, have "created many more terrorists in the past five years than we have killed."

"Normally we talk about all of our motive is freedom and patriotism and democracy. We're pushing democracy. ... The rest of the world thinks that's laughable. Professors in Central America, I was just down in Central America, and leading professors, respected people, say when they hear the word democracy their bowels move. That's the phrase. It disgusts them because democracy has just been abused, the name democracy, for what our foreign policy is all about."

Steves said his extensive travels have obviously shaped his world view. He has almost an ex-pat's relationship with America and has a deep distrust of the commercial media here at home.

"I'm an odd duck here in America, and I look at the evening news on the commercial channel and I have a very cynical look at it because I see it as, it's just propaganda, spreading around this very potent cocktail of fear and patriotism that I think is messing up our perspective on this."

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