Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Facts Don't Matter

To hear Republicans tell it, southwest border towns are being plagued by violent drug and people smugglers. Decapitated bodies are regularly found on the US side of the border. Arizona and Texas ranchers live in daily terror of the murderous traffickers. It's just not safe. Several GOP candidates won their elections by pointing all of this out.

The facts, however, tell a different story.

In a speech in El Paso, Napolitano cited FBI statistics showing that violent crime rates in Southwest border counties are down 30% over the last two decades and are "among the lowest in the nation."

Napolitano's effort to change the public perception of danger follows a heated campaign season last fall that saw candidates in border states frequently emphasizing the effects of illegal immigration on their communities.

And it's not just the administration noting the falsity of the Republican assertions on the battles at the border.

Angela Kelley, an immigration policy expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington, argued that there was a "pretty big disconnect" between the public perception about safety along the border and what the statistics showed.

"When you have politicians stirring the pot and turning up the heat on people's emotions and fear levels, you don't have a constructive debate on what to do," she said.

But she added: "Facts matter, but only to a point … because it is what citizens believe that defines the debate and sets the agenda in Washington. We can't be tone deaf to what the public believes."

Yes, if you tell the lie often enough, it begins to sound like the truth (cf, Stephen Colbert's "truthiness"). The problem is that truthiness soon winds up being quite expensive. One look at the Department of Homeland Security budget makes that clear.

Truthiness, however, has other costs. Normally good natured people start harassing their neighbors because of their ethnicity or skin color and force their state to legalize that harassment. Tourists stay away from lovely towns for fear that the criminals will rob, rape, or decapitate them. In times of emergency, a state's National Guard can't assist because they've been assigned border duty.

And that's why Janet Napolitano's speech was important and why more government officials need to speak out, citing the facts loudly and clearly. Maybe that will pierce the fog of the convenient lies.

Well, until the next election.

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