"Will we choose fear?

You may recall the National Intelligence Estimate that came out a couple of weeks ago. The NIE was a report gathered from the no less than 16 so-called spy agencies supported by our tax dollars. It announced that al-Qaida will probably launch an attack in the United States during the next three years.

“We assess,” the report said, “that al-Qaida will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the homeland.”

This news didn’t seem to make much of a dent in the way most Americans went about their lives. We’ve heard this sort of thing so often by now that we’ve come to view warnings like this with a certain skepticism, wondering less about the information itself than why our calculating leaders have chosen to share it with us at this particular time.

Either that or we were too absorbed by Lindsay Lohan’s inability to walk a straight line to pay attention to anything else.

I think we should take the NIE at its word. Let’s accept the grotesque idea that yes, there will probably be a terrorist attack in the U.S. at some point in the near future. If that’s the case, there are some questions we need to ask ourselves.

Understanding that whatever happens will be meant to shock and scare us down to the soles of our feet, we have to ask ourselves whether another major act of terrorism in this country will prompt us, as it did in 2001, to say to whoever is president: “You’re our leader, do whatever you think is best.”

In 2001, a great deal was made of the national unity the terrorist attacks inspired. Politicians proclaimed that there were no Democrats or Republicans — just Americans. A gathering of elected representatives stood on the Capitol steps and sang “God Bless America.”

At the time, all of this seemed like the silver lining to a particularly horrific cloud. The terrible crimes of Sept. 11 appeared to give way to a sense of shared purpose that had been lacking in our politics. It wasn’t so long ago that the Congress had been riven by Republican attempts to drive a Democratic president from office over lies he told about his sexual behavior. A bill of impeachment was drawn up; the country’s business all but came to a stop.

But that acrimony seemed to fade away after the destruction in Manhattan and at the Pentagon. So did any serious debate about what we should do next. In the rush to do something — anything — most members of Congress decided it was best not to ask questions of the president, not to disagree. And when he told them that Iraq was involved in the crimes committed against us and that its leader, Saddam Hussein, was busy developing nuclear weapons, most of our elected representatives nodded their heads, even though there was plenty of evidence available that suggested that neither of these assertions were true.

In 2001, people compared the terrorist attacks with Pearl Harbor. Terrorism, they said, was war by other, asymmetrical means. And so we mobilized the greatest military force in the world and struck back, first at Afghanistan’s gangster-like Taliban regime and then at Saddam Hussein in Iraq. I don’t need to tell you what’s happened since. I’ll leave that to the NIE, which, among other things, says that rather than getting smaller, the violent segment of Muslim populations around the world is actually expanding; that the war in Iraq has spawned an affiliate to al-Qaida that didn’t exist before called al-Qaida in Iraq; that al-Qaida and the Taliban are making a comeback in Afghanistan.

In the event there is another terrorist attack in the U.S., we need to ask ourselves whether this is an act of war or a terribly sick and twisted crime. After he was greeted by terrorist efforts to murder people with car bombs in London and Glasgow, Britain’s new Prime Minister Gordon Brown responded in part by ordering a change in the way his country talks about terrorism. He told his ministers that phrases like “war on terror” should no longer be used. His home secretary, Jacqui Smith, said, “Let us be clear, terrorists are criminals, whose victims come from all walks of life, communities and religions.”

Thinking of terrorists as international criminals to be dealt with by the allied resources of worldwide law enforcement is an idea that’s been mocked by our president and his supporters. They belittled John Kerry for suggesting this approach in 2004. Yet the threat of terrorism has grown on their watch.

Which leaves us with another question: After the dust settles following the next terrorist attack in this country, will we continue to allow ourselves to be governed by fear? 



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