October 12, 2001

To Win the War, Arm Americans with Education, Health Care, Liberty

By David E. Hayes-Bautista

LOS ANGELES — Those who attacked the United States on Sept. 11 do not wish to control U.S. territory, have no use for any national asset or resource, and are not interested in converting the population to a new faith.

Simply put, the intent of the attack was to divide and demoralize U.S. society and stop it from functioning.

Because terrorist groups intend to destroy, not to build, every day on the job in the United States is a blow against terrorism, and every purchase decision pushes terrorism back. Every citizen is a soldier, and daily battles are fought in millions of mundane actions — from the civil courtesies of saying "please" and "thank you" to buying a house — that hold society together.

Now that every citizen is a soldier, we need to make sure that all Americans have the weapons necessary to fight — and win — this new war. Expensive missile systems deployed in Afghanistan will only serve to rearrange the rubble of an already devastated country. But citizen-soldiers can be nearly invulnerable with some relatively modest investments.

We need a 21st century GI Bill, not to thank Americans for a battle well fought, but to give them the tools to fight the new battle. Efforts must concentrate in these areas:

* Education: Without a doubt, the most important weapon in this new war is education. An educated, empowered work force will keep an economy humming in spite of attempts at sabotage. But California and other states have squandered past educational gains. Once a leader in education, California now ranks near the bottom nationally and appears to be sinking even further. This failure has weighed most heavily on Latinos, who nonetheless have for 60 years been the most active element in the state's work force.

The declining numbers of Latinos and African Americans in the California's graduate and professional schools is not an Affirmative Action issue — it is a threat to the state's and nation's ability to wage the new war. Closing educational gaps as rapidly as possible would better arm our new citizen-soldiers.

* Health: In other wars, MASH units whisked soldiers from the front lines to hospitals in a matter of minutes. But in this new war, fought on the domestic front, almost 50 million Americans have no health insurance. While some affluent communities have a surplus of highly trained specialists, millions of other Americans must wait in long lines for care in the crumbling, under-funded public health system.

* Housing: In previous wars, barracks and family housing were made available for troops and their families. After World War II, the country thanked its soldiers by underwriting home ownership, sparking a huge housing boom in California. But many here have been squeezed out of the housing market by tilted lending practices and an explosion in prices. We need to show our gratitude to these new citizen-soldiers by ensuring they can buy a piece of the American dream for their families.

* Living Wage: Combat troops receive little pay, but they are provided benefits to cover the basics of life: food, shelter, clothing, health care, education and the like. If we are not willing to open post exchanges (subsidized stores) for the new citizen-soldiers, we should at least offer them a living wage so that they can purchase these benefits out of their salaries.

* Regularization of Immigrants: California and other state economies have benefited greatly from immigrants with irregular immigration status. Their nebulous status made it possible for the affluent to reap the benefit of these workers' low wages. Just three weeks ago, President George W. Bush and Mexico President Vicente Fox spoke of regularizing this situation. Since Sept. 11, it is imperative that we officially enroll these soldiers, and bring them into the light to fight alongside other Americans.

* Civil Rights: In the hysteria after Pearl Harbor, U.S. authorities profiled Japanese and Mexican Americans, whose loyalty should never have been in doubt. Though there are terrorists among us, there is similarly no reason to doubt the patriotism of the vast majority of Arab Americans, Muslim or not. In fact, most Arab Americans wouldn't fit the profile anyway. More than three-fourths are Christian (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant), not Muslim. And worldwide, more than 70 percent of Muslims are not of Middle Eastern descent; the vast majority are Indonesian, Filipino, Indian, sub-Saharan African, Chinese and from countries of the former Soviet Union. We must target terrorists, not Muslims, and not Americans of Arab background.

In this new war, the ultimate victory will come to the society that can create the greatest cohesion among the greatest number of people. If we arm the new citizen-soldiers with a living wage and the best education, health care, affordable housing and civil liberties, we can win. A new GI Bill can provide the leg up for millions today, the way the old GI Bill opened the doors for so many veterans of World War II.

Hayes-Bautista is a professor of medicine and Director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health & Culture at the School of Medicine, UCLA.

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