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Stop the Madness: The New Politics of Stunts

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On the heels of the controversy about this week's terror alerts in Europe, I reflected on a recent experience with the very real costs of what you might call the terrorist-hysteria complex.

Two weeks ago, I was in Afghanistan on a U.S. government-sponsored mission to observe the Parliamentary elections on Saturday, September 18th. The day before, I sat on the balcony of our guesthouse and watched a dangerous drama unfold just outside. Our security guards strung a black curtain along our balcony rail to block prying eyes. Through two of the panels, I watched as a member of the Afghan National Police crouched behind a wall of olive-green sandbags about a hundred feet away and aimed his automatic rifle at a curve in the road to the right.

We were in Panjshir, a valley about two and a half hours north of Kabul. At that moment, a mullah up the road was leading a protest at an elementary school in response to the burning of a Koran by by two men in Tennessee named Bob Old and Danny Allen. (This was different from Terry Jones, the Florida preacher who canceled his burning.)

You probably never heard about the Tennessee story. When you watch the video, it's mind-blowing that these two characters somehow animated events seven thousand miles away. But through the amps of a local hair-trigger media and Afghan opportunists looking to stir up trouble, Bob Old and Danny Allen -- names we will almost certainly never hear again -- created real danger and real expense in Afghanistan.

On the mission with me were two security professionals from the UK and the U.S., two Afghan security men, a translator, and my partner, all funded by a U.S. aid agency and U.S. taxpayer dollars. We were supposed to be out in the field, interviewing government officials, asking probing questions about the quality of the election, the depth of the rule of law. I should have been helping to determine whether the billions of dollars and gallons of blood our warfighters have poured into Afghanistan is worth it.

But we instead spent the day stuck in our guest house, pawns in the mad world of stunt-driven politics. There was a striking parallel between the stunts back in America and the Taliban's efforts in Afghanistan. Both were aimed at controlling the actions of millions through discrete acts of violence. Both take advantage of the nexus of blogs, a 24-hour news cycle, and political opportunism. And both have real consequences not only on our perception of reality, but on policy.

It was amazing how often I heard about the Koran burnings in Afghanistan -- from Afghan citizens, from American soldiers, from aid workers. Nobody seemed to realize that it was literally less than a handful of incidents. And that was the point. We were swept up in symbolism; stunts were controlling events.

We are, thankfully, moving on. But there's a deeper story here about the vulnerabilities we create for ourselves by driving up the drama of these threats. While terrorists are responsible for their actions, we are responsible for our reactions.

In the days after 9/11, I vividly remember the dilemma facing a friend's parents, who had purchased an expensive cruise to Greece. For days, they went back and forth on whether to cancel their trip. In the end, they did cancel. In retrospect, such hysteria seems inexplicable. But this is the point.

There is method to the madness. For millennia, terrorists have used discrete acts to change the behavior of large numbers of people, of nations. The Koran-burners and their allies are also trying to agitate, to translate economic fear into targeted animus, and to steer American policy in a more bellicose direction.

It was painful to watch the consequences on the allies we need to hold in Afghanistan. On Friday, our interpreter--a mild, friendly young Tajik Afghan who hates the Pashtun Taliban with a passion--left at lunch for prayers at his mosque.

At prayers, his mullah asked his flock to attend a protest at a nearby school against the Tennessee burnings. When he returned from lunch, he was visibly angry. "I understand freedom of speech," he told me, "but how can your government allow somebody to burn a religion's books?" He was nearly speechless. I found it hard to answer him.

The Taliban's campaign against the parliamentary elections also aimed to warp perception and, thus, reality. Eighteen campaign workers and election officials were kidnapped in the rural, poorly-policed province of Baghdis. There are dozens of examples -- but only dozens.

Both inside and outside the country, the media and opportunistic politicians said the elections were "marred by violence." During election day itself, I saw one headline on television in Panjshir: "At least ten killed in election day violence."

Ten deaths were a wrenching tragedy, by any measure. But to immediately grant these terrorist attacks the victory they sought--to "mar" the election--gave the Taliban a mile for every inch.

There are real consequences to allowing stunts to become the new reality. Were the Afghan elections successful or not?

We know the Taliban's answer. But there are also other facts. In a country of 30 to 40 million people, around four million voted, in a democracy only a few years old, at over 5,000 polling stations, for over 2,500 candidates. The election was far from perfect. But it was marred far more by corruption, fraud, and violence among candidates than by the Taliban.

The politics of stunts runs on a continuum from the very serious acts of the Taliban to the idiocy of Bob Old and Danny Allen. And across this spectrum, we are not powerless. Londoners managed to maintain a sense of normalcy during the London Blitz -- defeating Hitler's insanity through their commitment to their daily lives.

The cutting-edge concept guiding modern, post-George W. Bush homeland security policy is Stephen Flynn's idea of "resiliency." A resilient nation emerges from an attack stronger, more flexible, and fundamentally unchanged.

In dealing with those who would yank our strings, we should reach for resiliency rather than hysteria. Politicians can ask whether terrorism should drive policy, rather than the other way around. TV news editors can exercise some restraint when covering an obvious stunt. Op-ed writers can look at the actual magnitude of an attack and minimize, rather than maximize. Bloggers can react with balance, rather than driving up the temperature.

We can let extremists manipulate us like marionettes. Or, to borrow a phrase from Reagan's America about drug violence, we can stop the madness. In the end, it's our choice, not the terrorists. And that is just where we should begin.