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2/29/2008
THE TERRORISM CONUNDRUM FOR DEMOCRATS

Terrorism and the threat of an attack has been a Republican strong point with the voter since 9/11. I’m not sure why. The Bush Administration has dropped the ball in so many areas of Homeland Security that if the Democrats had any brains, they would attack Bush not for making terrorism a political issue but for the spectacular failures of his administration on issues such as border and port security, airport screening procedures, and improving the security around soft targets like chemical and electric plants. (Talking about the fact that the Department of Homeland Security itself is a bureaucratic mess and a disaster could take up a whole other article.)

But they cannot bring these issues up because they don’t believe there is a War on Terror – or at least not in the sense that we have anything really to worry about. The great conundrum for Democrats when dealing with the terror issue is that since the 2004 campaign they have been screaming bloody murder every time the issue of terrorism has been raised by a Republican candidate. They call it “playing the politics of fear” and denounce any effort to talk about the threats facing us.

But people want to know what Obama and Clinton are going to do to keep us safe. Hence the conundrum; Democrats must talk about the threats facing us but leave themselves wide open to charges that they too are playing the politics of fear when doing so.

It is a problem of their own making made obvious by the latest ad from Hillary Clinton that shows kids in bed asleep at 3:00 AM and a telephone ringing. A voice over asks who they want answering that phone in the White House – presumably when some crisis is confronting the country. The last scene showing Hillary picking up a phone in a darkened room is quite effective. (Ed Morrissey has the video.)

Clinton is really hearing it from the Obama camp and the blogs:

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., pushed back hard against the new ad, which ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos described as “the nuclear option” on Friday’s “Good Morning America”.

Addressing a group of veterans at an American Legion post in Houston, Obama said: “We’ve seen these ads before. They’re the kind that play on peoples’ fears to scare up votes.”

The tone of the ad—which echoes the infamous Daisy Ad from the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater presidential race and the red phone ad former Vice President Walter Mondale ran against Gary Hart in their ‘84 race for the Democratic nomination—indicates that the Clinton campaign is pulling out the all the stops leading into the Ohio and Texas primaries.

Is it inevitable now that any candidate – Republican or Democrat – who wants to speak frankly to the American people about the real threats we face will be tarred with the charge that they are trying to scare people to get votes?

I see nothing inherently wrong with Hillary trying to highlight the exceptional inexperience of her opponent on national security matters. I hope McCain goes after Obama in a similar manner early and often. But the question remains; are we ever going to be able to talk about terrorism?

Not as long as an advantage accrues to one side or the other when running for office. The idea that a candidate will use the politics of fear in order to win has a long, dishonorable tradition in American politics. The Democrats have successfully demagogued social security for 50 years, scaring senior citizens into thinking that Republicans want to throw them out on the streets and make them eat dog food. Republicans have spent much of the last 30 years successfully portraying the Democrats as weak sisters on national security matters, scaring voters into believing they would surrender first to the Soviets and now to al-Qaeda.

The politics of fear is a powerful ally for any campaign. The temptation to use the tactic is overwhelming because, depending on the issue, it works extremely well. The threat of terrorism is real and immediate. And using it the way that Hillary Clinton does in her ad – as a way to place doubts in voter’s minds about Obama – should not penalize her for bringing up a legitimate issue with which the next president is going to have to deal.

This is the conundrum largely created by the Democrats to answer the GOP’s huge advantage on the issue of terrorism. Apparently, it has now come back and bit them in the ass.

By: Rick Moran at 5:16 pm
18 Responses to “THE TERRORISM CONUNDRUM FOR DEMOCRATS”
  1. 1
    Oecolampadius Said:
    6:24 pm 

    Rick, I disagree with you on the fundamental point that terrorism is an issue. You write, “The threat of terrorism is real and immediate.” I suggest that we just look at the numbers. How many Americans have been killed by terrorists? That depends a great deal on what time window you select, but if you take it all the way back to, say, 1968, the total is under 5,000. That’s 125 people per year. Let’s bias it and take a window starting on 9/11. That’s 3,000 people over 6 years—about 500 people per year. That’s a pinprick, a number so tiny as to be lost in the statistics of American mortality. Here’s a table of selected entries from a standard table of mortality in the USA for the year 2005, expressed in terms of total American deaths that year. I’m skipping a lot, just to give you an idea of relative magnitudes:

    Heart Disease 652,091
    Malignant neoplasms 559,312
    Unintentional injury 117,809
    Influenza and Pneumonia 63,001
    Auto accident 43,667
    Septicemia 34,136
    Suicide 32,637
    Unintentional poisoning 23,618
    Accidental fall 19,656
    Homicide 18,124
    HIV 12,543
    Homicide with firearm 12,352
    Unintentional firearm 789
    Terrorism 500

    The list goes on and on. In terms of threat, terrorism is a nothingburger, a nonentity; we lose more people to machinery accidents than to terrorism. Do you want to have a War on Machinery Accidents? How about a War on Firearms—they’re 25 times more dangerous than terrorists.

    People have lost perspective on terrorism. It’s spectacular, but just not very important in the larger view of American life and death.

    Yes, there is the counter that terrorists could do something far worse—set off a nuclear device in a big city, that kind of thing. But there are lots of low-probability events that could kill large numbers of people: a one-in-a-million accident at a nuclear power plant; a dam failure; a military accident with a nuclear bomb; a chemical plant failure like Bhopal. The odds against any one of these things happening are millions to one, but they can’t be ruled out. In the same way, the odds of terrorists actually pulling off a spectacular attack killing tens of thousands of Americans are millions to one. Yes, we want to minimize those odds, just as we want to minimize the odds of other catastrophes. But there millions of millions-to-one catastrophe scenarios, and we simply can’t afford to have a War On Each and Every One of Them.

    The terrorists have achieved their greatest victory among conservatives, not liberals, for the conservatives are the ones who are truly terrorized.

  2. 2
    ChenZhen Said:
    7:28 pm 

    This is the conundrum largely created by the Democrats to answer the GOP’s huge advantage on the issue of terrorism. Apparently, it has now come back and bit them in the ass.

    BTW- I think that’s been sort of a self-perpetuated myth in the media and the blogosphere. In the most recent polls, the Dems have the slight edge, actually:

    ABC News/Washington Post Poll. Feb. 22-25, 2007. N=1,082 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3 (for all adults). Fieldwork by TNS.

    .

    “Who do you trust to do a better job handling the U.S. campaign against terrorism: Bush or the Democrats in Congress?” Options rotated. Half sample.

    2/22-25/07

    Bush Democrats Both (vol.) Neither (vol.) Unsure

    39 % 52% 2% 5% 2%

  3. 3
    Ike Andrews Said:
    11:16 pm 

    At first glance the statistics that downplay the threat of terroism which Oecolampadius reproduces for us make for a compelling case against the focus on anti-terrorism policies. However, looking at all the items listed, every issue except terrorism creates a personal crisis, while terrorism creates a national crisis. Every day we as a nation continue forward with innumerable personal tragedies both to the known and unknown, but let one national tragedy occur (like 9/11), and the whole nation is deeply and adversely affected. And what if we had done nothing to combat the war on terrorism during the years since 9/11? I have no doubt the incident rate for terrorism would be higher than 500. Should we give up the war on terror because of success?

  4. 4
    gringo Said:
    2:09 am 

    Talking about the low number of terror victims in the USA - well, we can use all kinds of comparisons. Say, how many people died in America because of Global Warming? How many can we expect to die in the next 50 years? We can also discuss on the number of blacks that were lynched in America in the whole 20th century. By these standards, moslem terrorism is not that minor…

  5. 5
    bobwire Said:
    2:32 am 

    Terrorism begins at home. Just ask anybody. do they fear another inchoate veil? Some mexicans mowing your yard? As far as I can tell, terrorism begins at home. Terrorism is a republican mantra. Is it who do you trust, or whom do you trust. Where is Safire when we need him!

  6. 6
    Melanie Said:
    4:25 am 

    “Terra, Terra, Fear fear”. The boogeyman is gonna get ya!

    Hillary must be really desperate to use a Republican tactic like fearmongering. Democrats have been repulsed by this for the last 6 and a half years. She’s going out of her way to make herself irrelevant.

  7. 7
    Sassenach Said:
    6:29 am 

    I don’t view the ad as fear-mongering—I view it as a legitimate question upon which to hang one’s vote. Those “phone calls” do come in, and with regularity. Which candidate is best prepared to handle the issue? More to the point, which candidate will be able to act quickly when necessary, without depending upon the advice of legions of lawyers and endless consensus. Which candidate, when presented with multiple and conflicting reports and analysis, will have the insight and fortitude to correctly asses the situation?

    Fear-mongering? No. Reality.

  8. 8
    Jec Said:
    7:49 am 

    The bottom line is that the Democrats would rather score political points than protect our country.

    “Getting George Bush” is their top priority, and to hell with National Security!

  9. 9
    Valerie Said:
    8:33 am 

    Oecolampadius

    You are advocating lawlessness and failure to protect the vulnerable because you personally think nobody you care about is likely to get hit. If we follow your line of reasoning, we will deserve what we get.

    Liberals don’t do that. They care about the little people, and the ones in harm’s way.

    http://eustonmanifesto.org/?page_id=132

  10. 10
    Oecolampadius Said:
    1:40 pm 

    Ike Andrews, you raise two points:

    1. The distinction between a personal crisis and a national crisis. I see no justification for that distinction. Yes, 9/11 generated a lot more news stories than the everyday accidents that kill more people. But we should found our policies on reality, not perception. The fact that millions of Americans were shocked by 9/11 while they are blase about traffic deaths does not mean that a policymaker should concentrate on the former and ignore the latter.

    2. The question of whether more attacks would have taken place had we not responded so vigorously. My response to this is to point out that there are degrees of response, from no response up to the full-tilt War on Terror with accompanying invasions, etc. I believe that, had we implemented only minor tightening of our security protocols, we would have been just as successful in preventing acts of terror as we are now. Of course, all these considerations are speculative. They’re rather like the old joke about the fellow waving his arms and quacking. When asked why he was engaging in such odd behavior, he replied “To keep the elephants away.” When reminded that there were no elephants nearby, he triumphantly replied “See? It works!”

    Valerie, you accuse me of advocating lawlessness. Your further accuse me of ignoring the needs of those I don’t know. This is poppycock; nothing I have written suggests any of those conclusions. You are indulging in wild hyperbole.

  11. 11
    John Moore Said:
    1:58 pm 

    You are missing the point. The threat of terrorism is much greater than the historical toll. The threat includes the release of a deadly contagious virus or the explosion of a crude nuclear weapon in an American city. The threat is real and is a result of the twin trends of Islamist extremism and the march of (destructive) technology.

    Furthermore, 9-11 was a major event – not just for its death toll, but for its impact on society and the economy. After all, more were killed there than Pearl Harbor. Would you have argued in 1941 that Japan and Germany were not major threats because fewer than 3000 Americans had been killed by them… yet?

    One reason 9-11 happened was a Democratic administration that treated terrorism like you suggest – a minor threat, low casualties, a police matter, no big deal.

    Even the Republicans’ “inadequate” response has stopped attacks that would have killed thousands. Imagine what the political scene would look like right now if the 2006 plot to blow up a dozen jumbo jets over American cities had not been thwarted?

    The Republicans should be taken more seriously on this because, in spite of the failure to do a better job (hey, when does the government do a good job?), they at least recognize and respond to the threat.

    Meanwhile, the Democrats have crippled our intelligence agencies every chance they got, starting in the 70’s and continuing into their current legislative action that has effectively ended much of our electronic intelligence gathering.

  12. 12
    Oecolampadius Said:
    3:22 pm 

    John, threat is a matter of perception and is therefore inherently subjective. You see big threat from Islamic terrorists, and I see little threat. There is no way we can resolve that difference of opinion. Therefore we have to use more objective terms. One objective term we can both agree on is body count. And that number, as I have demonstrated, is very low compared to many other threats to American lives.

    You cite several nasty terrorist possibilities. As I wrote earlier, those possibilities are real but they are of low probability. High-cost, low probability events are some of the toughest policy issues to deal with, largely because people get so upset about them. If we remove the emotional aspect and look at it in terms of probable body count, these possibilities always vanish into insignificance. For example, let’s do a fake calculation on a terrorist attack with a makeshift nuclear weapon. Let’s say that such an attack would kill a million people, and there’s one in a million chance of it happening per year. Then the mathematical calculation says that the effective threat of this event is 1 dead American per year—not much to worry about at all.

    Of course, this is a fake calculation—neither of us know the real numbers. But my point is that, if you look at these things rationally, they just don’t add up to much because the probabilities are certainly low.

    You might respond with the observation that a nuclear weapon detonating in an American city would trigger mass political hysteria. Yes, it would, just as 9/11 triggered political hysteria. But do you approve of that hysteria? Are you asserting that the American people are too emotional to respond rationally to such an event? Do you believe that we should abandon rationalism in the event of such an attack?

    You ask me,

    ” Would you have argued in 1941 that Japan and Germany were not major threats because fewer than 3000 Americans had been killed by them… yet?”

    Not at all. The basis for continuing attacks from Japan and Germany was clear to see. The probability that they could execute such attacks was high. There were good objective reasons to assess the danger posed by these powers as very serious. And there AREN’T good objective reasons to assess the danger posed by Islamic terrorists as very serious.

    You write,

    “Imagine what the political scene would look like right now if the 2006 plot to blow up a dozen jumbo jets over American cities had not been thwarted?”

    And was that plot thwarted by the troops in Iraq? By the troops in Afghanistan? Was it thwarted by warrantless wiretapping? Was it thwarted by any of the extreme measures taken since 9/11? Or was it thwarted by the same kind of diligent work that we were using prior to 9/11?

    You complain that the Democrats have crippled our intelligence efforts. Can you demonstrate that 9/11 would have been thwarted had we tortured people in our custody? Can you demonstrate that 9/11 would have been thwarted by warrantless wiretapping? Can you demonstrate that any of the impediments created by the Democrats prevented our intelligence agencies from thwarting the 9/11 plot?

  13. 13
    Neocon News » Daily Quick Hits 2/29/08 Pinged With:
    4:46 pm 

    [...] THE TERRORISM CONUNDRUM FOR DEMOCRATS [...]

  14. 14
    Bill Arnold Said:
    8:48 pm 

    Oecolampadius:
    For example, let’s do a fake calculation on a terrorist attack with a makeshift nuclear weapon. Let’s say that such an attack would kill a million people, and there’s one in a million chance of it happening per year.
    I’m very sympathetic to this line of reasoning, but believe that you’re seriously underestimating the threat. Even the relatively mundane threats we can expect from terrorist organizations with low-to-moderate technical skills should be taken very seriously.

    The issues have been
    (a) whether more effective policing, including proactive policing, would be helpful in significantly reducing the odds of successful terrorist attacks, and how to align increased police powers with civil liberties. This includes a frank discussion of how much we Americans want to allow police to leverage the technology curve over the next 20 years. Do we want 1000 times as many electronic deputies of the government observing our lives, directly and indirectly?
    (b) whether more should be spent on homeland infrastructure and border protection measures to minimize the chances of successful terrorist attacks, and whether we should improve our capacity to respond when an incident occurs, to hopefully minimize injury and loss of human life.
    (c) whether very expensive military interventions abroad are helpful or harmful to our security, and if they are helpful, how and where they should be focused.
    (d) whether more effort should be spent worldwide on reducing access to WMD raw materials and technologies. (yes!)
    (e) etc
    For all these, there are clear differences between the aggregate Democratic and Republican camps, and there are also significant differences within the parties. The Republicans would like all of America to think that they own the terrorism issue, but they don’t. (e.g. a lot of homeland security improvements could be bought with the $1.2 billion (price estimates vary) that was previously spent on a B2 bomber that crashed last week. The B2 program continued long after the collapse of the Soviet Union.)

  15. 15
    Oecolampadius Said:
    12:10 pm 

    Excellent points, Bill! It seems to me that we are caught up in a silly debate over whether terrorism is a police problem or a military problem, when it really is a NEW problem that requires something different. I see it as a problem best handled by a special combination of FBI and CIA efforts, but we need to establish new rules that address the issue in a way that respects the Constitution. The rush to circumvent the Bill of Rights is a stain on our Republic; we can have security without abusing the Constitution.

    I have some odd views on privacy: I believe that there is no such thing as privacy in the public environment, and so I am happy to install video cameras all over the place and record everybody’s public activities. However, I also believe that private activities really should be left private.

    One solution to our problems with intercepting electronic communications would be to delegate most of the work to computer algorithms. Congress passes enabling legislation that stakes out the broad parameters of the algorithms, then a group of experts create (in secrecy) the actual algorithms, with a Congressional oversight committee confirming that the intent of the enabling legislation is respected. Then we turn the computers loose on all electronic communications. The trick is that there are also strong strictures against human access to the intercepted data. Only the computers monitor the data streams; they kick out only that tiny fraction of data that meets the criteria of “suspiciousness”; only then does a human get to see it. This could actually work—IF we have sufficiently selective algorithms. Unfortunately, I fear that our body politic is too ignorant of computer science to appreciate that this process can be made both fair and effective.

  16. 16
    mannning Said:
    11:47 pm 

    This is the old saw of how many policemen do you need to ensure no crime. For some it is never enough, and for others it is always too many. The comprimise most often reached is in favor of far too few, such that you must wait many minutes for a cop to show up once called.

    The obvious result is that if someone wants to rob you, or blow you to bits, chances are all the police are going to do is help pick up the pieces, and chase leads.

    When the scale of such crimes reaches that of using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons on us, the number of victims rises kinda drastically. This in turn raises the demand for protection by citizens to the top of the scale. They will be served.

    For many, the demand for retribution against the bad guys goes ballistic as well. No bad guys evident? Well, any sinning group will do at that time: say, Iranians, Syrians, Palestinians—-all of the above for example. We lash out.

    So we flail about with our weapons until someone says enough! We are avenged. Several trillion dollars of destruction and many hundreds of thousands of deaths later, we survy the scene.

    How about next time we put in a few preventive measures around the world to stop these kinds of things before they become an orgy of destruction? Buy a few more cops, for God’s sake! Buy a lot more! Buy many division’s worth. And then use them! They are cheap by comparison to the death and destruction wrecked!

    Look at Israel and Palestine: firing away at each other for revenge every day for at least a half century.

    If you think our government could withstand the outcry for revenge, and take the hits without responding, I believe you are living in a dream world, a utopia without oxygen.

    So does the other guy want his revenge…

    How many cops does it take?

  17. 17
    The Glittering Eye » Blog Archive » Eye on the Watcher’s Council Pinged With:
    10:37 am 

    [...] Right Wing Nut House, “The Terrorism Conundrum for Democrats” [...]

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