For much of the last decade, the Republican line about liberals has been that whenever we downplayed the urgency of the so-called terrorist threat (or dared to criticize then-President Bush for that matter) we were somehow emboldening the terrorists.
For example, during the 2004 campaign, John Kerry was annihilated by the Dick Cheney wingnut right when he said, "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance."
Oh holy hell! Kerry said what?!
He was exactly right, of course, both strategically and rhetorically. The senator was outlining how we ought to be simultaneously destroying al-Qaeda and, in the "home of the brave," we ought to be acting like grown-ups rather than a nation of scared little pee-pants infants frightened of unseen toe monsters lurking under the bed.
Cheney and others, in response to Kerry, were very clearly implying that terrorism was always going to be a serious and existential threat to America -- that we have every right to be both terrified and terrorized -- therefore we absolutely have to torture people, undermine the rule of law, preemptively invade sovereign nations and, naturally, elect Republicans in order to be safe.
What the far-right has never grasped, however, is that the whole point of a terrorist attack isn't necessarily to kill people. The point is to terrorize. Scott Shanes in the New York Times quoted a former Homeland Security and CIA official:
"We give comfort to our enemies," said Charles E. Allen, a 40-year C.I.A. veteran who served as the top intelligence official at the Department of Homeland Security from 2007 to early last year. Exaggerated news coverage and commentary, he said, "creates an atmosphere of tension and fear, and to me that's exactly the wrong way to go."
Fareed Zakaria spelled it out even further this week:
The purpose of terrorism is to provoke an overreaction. Its real aim is not to kill the hundreds of people directly targeted but to sow fear in the rest of the population. Terrorism is an unusual military tactic in that it depends on the response of the onlookers. If we are not terrorized, then the attack didn't work. Alas, this one worked very well.
In the case of the Underpants Bomber, by collectively losing our shit and inflating a minor fracas out of proportion -- by acting as though this was a major bloody attack and subsequently acquiescing to full body scans and further violations of our civil liberties, we're handing al-Qaeda a victory. The attempt was a failure, but the overreaction in its aftermath turned it into an easy win for al-Qaeda.
Good job, Republicans. Good job, Fox News.
Speaking of which, it didn't take long for Fox Nation to run a banner headline equating the failed Underpants Bomber incident with the earthquake in Haiti.
"Pres. Obama Reacts to Haiti Earthquake Faster Than Christmas Bomber"
Not surprisingly, Rush Limbaugh said the same thing on his Wednesday radio broadcast.
The implication of Limbaugh and the Fox Nation headline was that the President should have reacted more quickly to the relatively very minor Underpants Bomber than to the catastrophic earthquake that might've killed upwards of 500,000 people. In this case, they're amplifying a failed incendiary device to a level more significant than a massive loss of life in one of the world's most destructive natural disasters.
Of course the President is going to react more quickly to a disaster like the earthquake in Haiti than he is to a Junior Qaeda with an exploding taint (who, by the way, didn't kill anyone). Any rational observer can see that the President's reactions have been proportional to the gravity of the events.
Nevertheless, Limbaugh and Fox Nation continue to illustrate how the far-right invariably overreacts to terrorism, blowing it way out of proportion and elevating a scattered network of radicals to a fighting status equaling the mighty United States. It's been this way since September 11. "The response of the onlookers," as Zakaria wrote, has been obscene.
Rewind a few years. Limbaugh once told his audience, "Civil liberties are worthless if we are dead." In late 2005, Senator "Big John" Cornyn said, "None of your civil liberties matter much after you're dead." Predictably enough, in a 2006 poll, Gallup reported that Republicans were more willing to give up basic liberties for the sake of preventing terrorism. This is precisely the overreaction that terrorists seek, and it's precisely what the Republicans are giving them.
Today, it's Liz Cheney and her fear-mongering commercials. It's Peter King, who's been all over cable news hyperventilating into a paper sack since Christmas. It never ceases to amaze me how a faction of allegedly tough-talking conservatives can be so easily frightened by a kid with exploding underpants who couldn't even do it right. Listening to Republicans for the last several weeks, you'd think Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a steroid-pumped, 12-foot-tall transforming robot with ICBMs strapped to his gigantic unit. In reality, this guy was the Steve-O of terrorists -- only, Steve-O was usually successful when attempting to blow up his jockeys.
But, by now, the damage is done. The Republican fear-mongering and overreaction to the Underpants Bomber has signaled that we're all too willing to give "comfort to our enemies" by handing them exactly what they seek: a national panic attack and an increased willingness to give up our liberties for the illusion of security.
Like John Kerry, I want terrorism to be nothing more than nuisance. Like President Obama, I'm not interested in knee-jerking or selling out our values, liberties and dignity whenever a terrorist tries something stupid. Ultimately, it's okay to be afraid when something awful happens, but our character as a nation is defined by how we react. I can't imagine anything more self-defeating -- anything that emboldens a terrorist more -- than allowing ourselves to acquiesce and succumb to our fears.