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Remember the enemy within

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GOSIER
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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 10, 2002


You have to lean in and listen carefully to hear the quiet voice of Ruth Barrens. When you do, chances are you will hear her talking about the Suncoast AfterSchool Alliance, a program about which even she cannot conceal her excitement.

The program was created to productively fill the treacherous few hours after school for middle school children who are most susceptible to trouble. Poverty, single or working parents, and poor academic performance are some of the main identifiers.

Congress authorized $1.25-billion to finance the program this year, with incremental increases to reach a maximum allocation of $2.5-billion in 2007. Barrens is the person in charge of bringing together all the elements of the alliance in Pinellas County.

The county's pilot under the national umbrella of after-school programs was at St. Petersburg's John Hopkins Middle School from 1998 into the 2001 school year, but it ended when funding expired. A similar program in Hillsborough County is headed for the same fate within months.

Schools routinely report that students who enroll in the program improve their behavior and class performance. At John Hopkins, for example, nearly half the students improved academically by at least one letter grade.

Law enforcement officials routinely report that adolescents and unfilled, unsupervised time in the hours after school are a troublesome combination.

Barrens' after-school programs fill those hours with learning and activities in a supervised environment. All that costs money, of course.

Barrens' mission these days is to chip free some of the money Congress authorized but has not yet appropriated for the program. She has even taken her case to Washington, D.C.

But this is a year, this is a time, when Barrens' quiet voice may not be loud enough. Now it is competing with the deafening sound of war drums.

When she spoke with U.S. Rep. Bill Young, R-Largo, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, he -- like most of the rest of the nation -- seemed focused on matters of defense and safety at home.

"I would have preferred that he discussed education and after-school programs," said Barrens, who spent hours presenting her case to his staff. "But we were lucky even to be able to get in to see him."

A member of Young's staff confirmed that homeland security and antiterrorism are high priorities in Washington now but added that education is also a priority with Young. He said Barrens' program will likely receive funding but probably not as much as she requested.

A member of Sen. Bob Graham's staff was polite but delivered the same basic message: The senator is focused on intelligence and the ramifications of the terrorism threat.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the nation's focus has been terrorism. Anything not related has taken a backseat to envelopes with white powder or a would-be passenger behaving suspiciously at the airport. The attacks put the nation on alert.

But it's time for a dose of reality: After a day of commemoration tomorrow, let's get on with our lives.

A handful of extremists around the world is not the greatest threat facing this nation. The greatest threats are from within.

Senior citizens don't live behind barred windows because they fear that one of Osama bin Laden's henchmen is going to break in. Americans feel unsafe on their streets because of the threat posed by American criminals, not Islamic extremists.

But the criminals, our domestic terrorists, generally don't leave mass casualties. Although the totals may be the same or much higher, murderers and muggers and dope dealers and rapists tend to create their victims one at a time.

A disproportionate share of those crimes, of those ruined lives, will be the responsibility of people whose childhoods suffered from a deficit of supervision and guidance. We know that education reduces the likelihood of criminal behavior. We know that self-esteem and a series of successes minimize the chances of conceding to failure with a convenience store stickup.

But our paranoia makes us irrational: It is easier to rally against a lesser enemy over there than against the greater one within. Our emotions make us shortsighted: We edit our Constitution to make it easier for us to arrest and detain them, and we don't seem to care who the next them will be.

We are fighting a war against terrorism, we say, and sometimes that, like any war, gets ugly.

But perhaps we should listen more carefully to the quiet voices, such as Barrens', calling for pre-emptive strikes at some of the problems that undermine our sense of security at home. We should not need to see skyscrapers fall to realize that something in our country is being destroyed. We should not need to see bodies buried in one huge pile of rubble to know that American lives are being senselessly lost. We should not need to identify a terrorist network to realize our well-being is threatened.

We should see that if we could sweep the cumulative carnage on America's streets into a pile, the body count of innocent lives would dwarf the World Trade Center tragedy. If we could measure the nation's moral fiber allowed to rot in the field, it would fill silos at least the size of the twin towers. If the people we fear most formed a network and we responded to them as we do around the world, our military would have leveled every American city by now.

There are many voices such as Barrens', quietly urging us to take care of our home front.

If we don't, we may find ourselves trying to defend militarily a country we can defend in few other ways.

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