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Sunday, September 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Leonard Pitts Jr. / Syndicated columnist
Tickets to Bush magic show only thing 1,000 deaths bought


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Three years later, Osama bin Laden is still free, apparently hiding somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Three years later, a spirited presidential campaign is in full swing, the candidates sparring over Vietnam.

Three years later, there comes news that the American death toll in Iraq has surpassed a thousand.

Iraq, as you know, is the front line in the War on Terror that began Sept. 11, 2001. Or at least, that's what the president keeps stubbornly saying and polls indicate half of us keep stubbornly believing. And never mind that intelligence experts say Iraq had about as much to do with Sept. 11 as Canada did. No need to focus too closely on that.

We're watching a sort of magic show, after all, public opinion manipulated like a handkerchief borrowed out of the audience. Nothing up his sleeve, presto! The lie becomes the truth.

And a thousand people die.

It's one of those numbers that always gets the news media's attention, carrying as it does the weight of a milestone. But I am reminded of something a reader told me after an earlier column lamenting the death toll that, at that point, stood just south of 600.

That's not that many, he said.

By the grim mathematics of war, he has a point. Even a thousand deaths represents the barest fraction of those who were lost in Vietnam. During the Civil War, many times that number often were lost in a single day.

Besides, the death count is slightly misleading, given that it includes not just Americans killed in action, but also those who died from accidents, suicides and other causes.

But the weight of the milestone is not so easily shrugged aside and, even given those caveats, a thousand lives lost is not an insignificant thing. "One" life lost is not insignificant. Especially when you consider all the mothers, fathers, children, husbands, wives, co-workers and friends each loss affects.

Of course, the sobering truth is that life is the currency of war, the means by which a nation purchases its goals when they cannot be obtained by peaceful means. Or when the nation refuses to wait for peaceful means to bear fruit.

Given that this currency is so precious, we're morally obligated to spend it carefully. So even though we're talking about "only" a thousand lives, it seems fair to pause and consider what they have bought.

Actually, it's easier to list the things they have not bought.

They have not bought a sense of security. Pollsters say more than half of us expect a terrorist strike in the near future.

They have not bought peace in Iraq. The death toll rose by four while I was writing this column.

They have not bought the world's respect. We are feared by allies and vilified by people we purported to liberate.

So what have those lives bought? As near as I can tell, only tickets to a magic show.

Maybe you consider that an insult to those who lost their lives in their country's service. I would only point out that the search for meaning in death has nothing to do with the dead. It is, rather, a comfort the living give themselves to soften the rough edges of mourning.

Will we insist on that comfort even if doing so requires us to believe what is not true?

That's a question I could not have imagined asking that September morning three years ago.

But three years later, the man who authored that unholy day is on the back burner.

Three years later, our moral authority is squandered, our sense of purpose wasted.

Three years later, the death toll in an unnecessary and unrelated war climbs above a milestone number.

And the president presents a magic show. Abracadabra! A quagmire becomes a showcase of his iron resolve. Maybe for his next trick, he will pull an election out of a hat.

You might be able to enjoy his act. I keep thinking we paid way too much to get in.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: lpitts@herald.com

Copyright 2004, The Miami Herald

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