On Drama Queens and Cool Cals
Suddenly, underwear are in the news in a way unknown since Britney Spears got out of a limo without them. And, as with Ms. Spears, suddenly things are laid bare in a way with which none of us are entirely comfortable.
What’s been laid bare is a division: between those stuck in the Bush paradigm (where terrorism is or ought to be a cause for a rolling state of panic) and those transitioning into the Obama paradigm (where terrorism is a fact of life to be managed as coolly and rationally as possible).
To the Bush paradigmers, this incident has been a confirmation of everything they detest about Obama — his refusal to engage in chest-thumping rhetoric, his refusal to treat terrorism as the defining issue of our age, his propensity to look at things in terms of costs and benefits as opposed to good and evil.
For the Obama paradigmers, this incident has been a confirmation of… well, exactly the same things. Except they (OK, we — let’s be straightforward about where my sympathies lie here) voted for Obama because of these qualities.
What’s also been laid bare by the undie incident is just how out of touch with reality the Bush paradigmers have become — and just how full of hypocrisy they all are. Suddenly, refusing to hold a press conference the day some ass clown sets his tighty-whities on fire is a major lapse in national security. Suddenly, a passenger thwarting an Al Qaeda plot is no longer a chance to celebrate the heroism of the Western individual versus the nihilism of the radical follower (as it would have been for the Right during the Bush years), but instead is an opportunity to whine about the fact that a man might be called upon to defend himself and his fellow citizens instead of Big Brother taking care of everything. Suddenly, a refusal to act like cowards and quake before the mighty Al Qaeda is a sign of weakness instead of a sign of strength.
Let’s be clear: The Bush paradigm failed, and it failed big. We invaded two Middle Eastern countries and achieved little but to create an endless stream of new Al Qaeda recruits. This isn’t to say Al Qaeda would have atrophied otherwise, but it is to say that “state sponsorship” has proved less the key to terrorism than the existence of failed states. And, unless America can conquer every square mile of failed state on the globe, terrorist networks will always have a “safe haven” of one sort or another. Thus, the entire idea of a “war on terror” has proved a farce. The hawks already want to march on Yemen — good luck to them, and see them in Somalia soon.
Meanwhile, those of us who realize terrorism can’t be “defeated” in a “war” have had to shift to a different way of looking at the world. There will never be an end to, or a victory in, a “War of Terror” in our lifetimes. Al Qaeda will never sign an armistice in the aisle of a transatlantic flight. So, it’s no longer sensible — or even sane — to talk about a “war.” To talk about holding detainees until “the end of the war.” To talk about instituting liberty-crushing security measures until “the threat has passed.”
Whatever we do now we have to be ready to live with forever. And some of us, at least, aren’t ready to live in a state of 24/7 terror and panic and hysteria for the rest of our lives. For that reason, Obama is our president.
For the drama queens, life is meaningless without a never-ending struggle between good and evil. For the rest of us, terrorism is a problem to be managed and fought down to an absolute minimum — so that the real business of life can go on.
The problem with the Obama approach, unfortunately, is that an attack may — let’s face it, will — one day happen again. Bush avoided subsequent attacks by luck just as Obama avoided the Christmas Day attack by luck. But one day we all won’t be so lucky, the bomb will ignite, and then where will we be? Will such an attack be Obama’s fault because he didn’t bang the podium loudly enough and demand the Yemen terrorists “dead or alive”? Of course not. But we’ll be told the Obama administration didn’t take the terrorist threat “seriously” because they refused to invade another country or hang a prisoner on the wall by his balls.
And, so, I applaud the way the president has handled the terrorism issue so far, and I pray we don’t see a successful attack on his watch — as much for the obvious reasons as for fear of what demagoguery might spring up in its wake.
Terrorism is not now, and has never been, an existential threat to the United States. As we’ve discussed, the threat of dying in a terrorist attack is far smaller than the threat of being hit by lightning. No one’s arguing we shouldn’t be vigilant against terrorism — and airline security in particular is a farce, a problem that must be solved, and (frustratingly enough) a problem that can be solved. As is the problem we seem to have of keeping people — even people who’ve been flagged by their own families — on the proper watch lists. But these are law-enforcement problems and intelligence problems. They are not a war.
The war is in our minds, between being scared of our shadows and keeping the true threat in perspective. It’s not easy of course — I’m a New Yorker, every day I get on a subway that could be bombed, that rumbles under what used to be the World Trade Center. But is there any true solution other than to keep a stiff upper lip?
Fear is a powerful weapon — and there’s no reason the American president should act as a force multiplier for Al Qaeda.