Safety At All Costs Republican Presidential Debate: December, 15 2015

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Andrew Pulrang

Safety At All Costs Republican Presidential Debate: December, 15 2015

What could disability policy and national security possibly have in common? You might be surprised. I sure was.

Tuesday night, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump met again in the 5th Republican Presidential Debate. Since their last get-together, terrorist attacks in Paris, France and San Bernadino, California have seemingly changed the mood of the whole country, and certainly changed the subject in the Presidential race. The December 15 debate was all about terrorism, national security, and foreign policy. There were no questions about the economy, taxes, or employment, and less than nothing about gay marriage, racism, poverty … or disability issues. It was all war, all toughness, all Who can be the baddest bad-ass?, all the time.

After the first half hour or so, I stopped taking notes. I watched and listened, but from the other side of my apartment, while doing the dishes. So, if I match the wrong candidate with the wrong position, or fail to provide any really good quotes, I apologize. This one’s going to be rather general and theoretical, because there’s no way I am going to dig into the details of these candidates plans for how to “keep America safe.”

Don’t get me wrong. I strongly urge all voters with disabilities to take the time to study and think seriously about all of these issues, whether or not they are related to disability policy and disabled people. But my job here, I think, is to try to view this campaign through the lens of disability. So I gave it a try.

I tried making something out of Ben Carson and Donald Trump’s fixation on “political correctness,” because disabled people who care about terminology, ableism, and respect are routinely tagged as “PC” and not in a good way.

I thought there might be something said about disability since the San Bernadino shootings took place at a service center for people with developmental disabilities. But all we got was a drive-by mention by Chris Christie. And that’s probably as it should be, since it seems less likely every day that the shooters targeted that particular place because of its disability connection.

For once, nobody blamed gun violence on mental illness, i.e., “sickos.”

We had, of course, the now obligatory bow to “wounded warriors,” a reference that seems to be a lot more about the “warrior” part than the “wounded part.

As expected, there wasn’t much to say about the debate from a disability perspective, except for this …

One connection did come to mind. It’s a bit of a stretch, so stay with me on this.

Even though the candidates advocated several different approaches to terrorism and national security, the underlying premise of nearly all of them is that we should be willing to do almost anything, (or everything), to prevent another act of terrorism.

Most of the candidates are willing … even eager …  to violate civil rights and norms of decent behavior in order to prevent any more acts of terrorism like what we saw in San Bernadino and Paris. They will, with a grim smile, sacrifice fundamental values in order to guarantee nothing bad ever happens again. In fact, they equated any hesitancy about doing so with weakness, even “betrayal.” Without putting it precisely in these words, the candidates were saying, Yes, we do need to sacrifice freedom for safety. It’s right to do so, emotionally satisfying, and irresponsible not to.

Several of the candidates also repeated numerous times that the number one job of the President is to keep America safe. Number one means more important than literally anything else. Even the few exceptions, most notably Rand Paul, drove the point home by daring to suggest that some outcomes might actually be worse than another terrorist attack.

The candidates’ language about risks and rights reminded me that one of the most formidable barriers to independence and autonomy for disabled people is the “for our own good” application of safety at all costs.

A quadriplegic who wants to leave a nursing home and live in her own apartment. She is prevented from doing this by medical professionals, home care regulations, and maybe even friends and family who object because what if something happens? All other priorities … freedom, personal choice, social integration, basic human dignity, blessed solitude … are automatically regarded as secondary to safety, the priority that overrules all others.

There are two main problems with both of these seemingly different issues, national security and independence for disabled people.

First, some values and rights are, perhaps, too precious to be sacrificed for safety. Sometimes sacrificing rights and values IS the right choice, but it isn’t always so, and we should always discuss it first, and not compete over who can trample THE MOST rights and values in order to appear tough and / or prudent.

Second, in both situations we are often too quick to accept the premise. We are properly horrified at very recent, vicious acts of terrorism. Obviously, our risk of terrorism has just shot way, way up, partly because the landscape has actually changed, but also because Paris and San Bernadio just happened.

Meanwhile, disabled people say they want independence, seem to others to be helpless and hopelessly dependent on the competence and care of others. Disabled people are also often assumed to be unable to properly assess risks for themselves. Therefore, unless we control every aspect of their lives in all conceivable situations, the risk of harm is imminent, and the consequences dire.

In both cases, that’s just the way it is, and it’s our job to bend our priorities to calm others’ fears. Any other ordering of priorities is naive and foolhardy.

And yet, there is often a massive difference between actual risk and the perception of risk. How safe a disabled person is on their own is at least somewhat subjective, a combination of physical, confirmable evidence and experience, but also gut feelings that are colored by ableism.

Likewise, terrorist attacks are by definition terrifying, no matter how many people die, how often they actually occur, or how much of a risk they are compared to the many other risks we all live with every day, without thinking. By this logic, driving motor vehicles should be illegal, and everyone should have to submit our day to day lifestyle choices to the approval or disapproval of a panel of doctors.

“The dignity of risk” may be relevant to more than just disability matters. We as disabled people know more than most about soberly weighing risks and balancing them with the less spectacular but just as important rewards of freedom, privacy, equal protection under law, and basic human dignity. The disability perspective gives us valuable insights into every area of policy and governance, not just disability policy itself.

Will the Democratic candidates trigger similar thoughts in their debate on December 19th? As I have said before, Republicans and Democrats think differently about most things, but you can’t predict reliably how they will deal with disability issues. It’s usually a bit easier to anticipate their reactions to terrorism, but the fear right now is more intense than it has been for years. We might be surprised at what Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley are and aren’t willing to trade for safety, or even for the illusion of it.

Contact: Andrew Pulrang