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KRISTOF: America's security priorities are out of whack

  • Semi-automatic handguns are displayed at Capitol City Arms Supply in Springfield, Ill., in January 2013. (Seth Perlman / Associated Press file)

I just finished a five-month leave from this column, writing a book with my wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and what struck me while away from the daily fray is a paradox that doesn't seem quite patriotic enough for July Fourth.

But I'll share it anyway: On security issues, we Americans need a rebalancing. We appear willing to bear any burden, pay any price, to confound the kind of terrorists who shout “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) and plant bombs, while unwilling to take the slightest step to curb a different kind of terrorism — mundane gun violence in classrooms, cinemas and inner cities that claims 1,200 times as many American lives.

When I began my book leave, it seemed likely that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut would impel Congress to approve universal background checks for gun purchases. It looked as if we might follow Australia, which responded to a 1996 gun massacre by imposing restrictions that have resulted in not a single mass shooting there since.

Alas, I was naïve. Despite 91 percent support from voters polled in late March and early April, Congress rejected background checks. Political momentum to reduce gun killings has now faded — until the next such slaughter.

Meanwhile, our national leaders have been in a tizzy over Edward Snowden and his leaks about National Security Agency surveillance of — of, well, just about everything. The public reaction has been a shrug: Most people don't like surveillance, but they seem willing to accept it and much more as the price of suppressing terrorism.

Our response to the Sept. 11 attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and international terrorism has been remarkable, including an intelligence apparatus in which some 1.4 million people (including, until recently, Snowden) hold “top secret” clearances. That's more than twice the population of the District of Columbia. The Washington Post has reported that, since 9/11, the United States has built new intelligence complexes equivalent in office space to 22 U.S. Capitol buildings. All told, since 9/11, the United States has spent $8 trillion on the military and homeland security, according to the National Priorities Project, a research group that works for budget transparency. That's nearly $70,000 per U.S. household.

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