Thursday, August 17

Hoping for Fear


Just two days after 9/11, I learned from Congressional staffers that Republicans on Capitol Hill were already exploiting the atrocity, trying to use it to push through tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. I wrote about the subject the next day, warning that “politicians who wrap themselves in the flag while relentlessly pursuing their usual partisan agenda are not true patriots.”

The response from readers was furious — fury not at the politicians but at me, for suggesting that such an outrage was even possible. “How can I say that to my young son?” demanded one angry correspondent.

I wonder what he says to his son these days.

We now know that from the very beginning, the Bush administration and its allies in Congress saw the terrorist threat not as a problem to be solved, but as a political opportunity to be exploited. The story of the latest terror plot makes the administration’s fecklessness and cynicism on terrorism clearer than ever.

Fecklessness: the administration has always pinched pennies when it comes to actually defending America against terrorist attacks. Now we learn that terrorism experts have known about the threat of liquid explosives for years, but that the Bush administration did nothing about that threat until now, and tried to divert funds from programs that might have helped protect us. “As the British terror plot was unfolding,” reports The Associated Press, “the Bush administration quietly tried to take away $6 million that was supposed to be spent this year developing new explosives detection technology.”

Cynicism: Republicans have consistently portrayed their opponents as weak on terrorism, if not actually in sympathy with the terrorists. Remember the 2002 TV ad in which Senator Max Cleland of Georgia was pictured with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein? Now we have Dick Cheney suggesting that voters in the Democratic primary in Connecticut were lending aid and comfort to “Al Qaeda types.” There they go again.

More fecklessness, and maybe more cynicism, too: NBC reports that there was a dispute between the British and the Americans over when to make arrests in the latest plot. Since the alleged plotters weren’t ready to go — they hadn’t purchased airline tickets, and some didn’t even have passports yet — British officials wanted to watch and wait, hoping to gather more evidence. But according to NBC, the Americans insisted on early arrests.

Suspicions that the Bush administration might have had political motives in wanting the arrests made prematurely are fed by memories of events two years ago: the Department of Homeland Security declared a terror alert just after the Democratic National Convention, shifting the spotlight away from John Kerry — and, according to Pakistani intelligence officials, blowing the cover of a mole inside Al Qaeda.

But whether or not there was something fishy about the timing of the latest terror announcement, there’s the question of whether the administration’s scare tactics will work. If current polls are any indication, Republicans are on the verge of losing control of at least one house of Congress. And “on every issue other than terrorism and homeland security,” says Newsweek about its latest poll, “the Dems win.” Can a last-minute effort to make a big splash on terror stave off electoral disaster?

Many political analysts think it will. But even on terrorism, and even after the latest news, polls give Republicans at best a slight advantage. And Democrats are finally doing what they should have done long ago: calling foul on the administration’s attempt to take partisan advantage of the terrorist threat.

It was significant both that President Bush felt obliged to defend himself against that accusation in his Saturday radio address, and that his standard defense — attacking a straw man by declaring that “there should be no disagreement about the dangers we face” — came off sounding so weak.

Above all, many Americans now understand the extent to which Mr. Bush abused the trust the nation placed in him after 9/11. Americans no longer believe that he is someone who will keep them safe, as many did even in 2004; the pathetic response to Hurricane Katrina and the disaster in Iraq have seen to that.

All Mr. Bush and his party can do at this point is demonize their opposition. And my guess is that the public won’t go for it, that Americans are fed up with leadership that has nothing to hope for but fear itself.