2016 election, chattering classes, Donald Trump, Immigration, ISIS, Michael Tomasky, Muslims, Orlando, Orlando attacks, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Paris attacks, refugees, September 11, terrorism, The New York Times
Ever since the September 11 attacks, I’ve worried that a sizable share of the American public, and especially its chattering and media classes, has lost the instinct for self-preservation. Michael Tomasky’s column in the June 18 New York Times epitomizes this trend – and the extra oomph it’s acquired over the few months, thanks in part (but only in part) to presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s free-swinging presidential campaign.
Tomasky, editor of the “journal of ideas” Democracy, got off on a wildly wrong foot with his description of the politics of terrorism since September 11. In his view, it’s a story of successful “fear-mongering” that began with former President George W. Bush’s “talk of weapons of mass destruction and mushroom clouds” and launch of the second Iraq War, but that might be coming to an end with what he views as strong public push-back against Trump’s statements following the Orlando shooting.
No one should support fear-mongering. But has the post-September 11 American political and policy scene really an example of Republicans “whipping the electorate into a state of frenzy about this or that threat”? Here Tomasky’s resort to social-science-y jargon becomes even more exquisitely revealing than that jaw-dropping belittling of an event that killed nearly 3,000 people (from 93 countries) and injured thousands more.
As the author explains it, fifteen years ago, unscrupulous right wing demagogues exploited fear’s ability to lead voters to “embrace more conservative positions than they might otherwise have.” Even worse, in Tomasky’s view, they took advantage of the tendency of “people who start imagining their own death [to] begin to sanction extreme measures to prevent it from happening.”
Apparently, it’s unacceptable to Tomasky and to those Americans who consider their country’s reactions to terrorist violence to be excessive, that outbursts of mass murder spur widespread demands that U.S. leaders go beyond business-as-usual to save their compatriots’ lives and their own.
If you believe Tomasky et al don’t deserve this accusation, then tell me how you would explain his contention that the most sensible reaction to September, 11 nowadays – and one he’s pleased to report is spreading – is a shoulder-shrugging recognition that “we have joined the world, the weary and beleaguered world, and learned that anything can happen anywhere, anytime”?
This stunningly blasé attitude clearly also lies behind Tomasky’s condemnation of Trump’s statement, following last November’s Paris attacks – and a mere two week before the San Bernardino, California murders – that “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule.” And even though 49 more innocent Americans were killed by an ISIS follower in Orlando, Tomasky is still preaching (literal) fatalism.
Indeed, here, evidently is his greatest terrorism-related worry right now: that “a different kind of terrorist attack this fall — one actually orchestrated by the Islamic State, say, or spreading death more randomly — may produce a more traditional fallout than Orlando.” Translation: Americans may become even more insistent that their leaders figure out how to keep them safe. Thankfully, this school of thought wasn’t prevalent in Massachusetts in 1775 – unless Paul Revere was a fear-mongerer, too?
Tomasky’s article is not completely off the wall. He rightly notes that “You can’t stoke fear if you can’t also reassure. It won’t work. If you want to make people scared and force them to turn to you as their protector, you have to demonstrate that you are worthy of being that protector.” He just as rightly observes that Trump hasn’t passed that test of leadership beyond his base.
The author also makes the entirely legitimate point that some of the post-September 11 Bush policies – chiefly the second Iraq War – have backfired in major ways. (He would have placed himself on stronger ground, however, by acknowledging that under Bush, nothing remotely approaching a September 11 repeat took place, and that throughout his term, the 43d president urged Americans not to turn either on their fellow Muslim citizens or on Islam in general.)
But it’s impossible to read Tomasky’s piece objectively, add in its complete lack of alternative policy proposals, and not conclude that his top priority is to help foster the emergence of a “political golden age when inducing fear will never work.” (Yes, that phrase is a verbatim quote.) You needn’t be a Trump-ite, or support blanket Muslim immigration and refugee bans or other unworkable ideas, to recognize that in a still-dangerous world, a dose of fear is essential for survival itself – and that 63 Americans killed by Islamist-inspired attackers in the last six months alone is an unmistakable sign that current U.S. terrorism strategy urgently needs some more of it.