The November 13 Paris attacks changed the trajectory of our 2016 presidential election, and not for the good. I know because I’ve watched it happen before.
On September 11, 2001, my wife and I were visiting Maine for a wedding. Here’s how to feel spooked: the house where I grew up was a mere two miles from the airport where Mohammed Atta and and Abdulaziz al-Omari began their journey that ended on American flight 11—the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.
Perhaps even spookier, I got a front-row seat to the hard-right turn our country was about to make, later that day. Joe the mailman had spent the morning on his route with Rush Limbaugh blaring into his ear. Three hours of it. He handed my parents their mail and exclaimed to all of us, “Thank God George W. Bush is president!”
Fourteen years and multiple wars later, that scene seems like over-the-top foreshadowing in a crappy film noir movie. In the months and years that followed, Republicans rode a wave of fear into congressional majorities. A pundit at the time described congressional Democrats as “running around like scared forest animals” as wave after wave of jingoistic insanity swept across the political landscape.
W and many of his comrades got out in front of the fallout quickly, spending the next year sowing fear so effectively that they dominated their first-term midterm elections—ones that ordinarily mean losses for the president’s party. Not in 2002.
Imagine for a moment what the Republicans would have done following 9/11 attacks that occurred during President Al Gore’s first term. Hah! The exact same thing, with a lot more finger pointing. And they would have dominated those mythical midterms, too.
In the middle of the 2016 campaign, where the polls have every Republican candidate losing to Hillary Clinton, you can well imagine the GOP dusting off that hoary old “they’re weak on national defense” attack strategy.
Obama delivered some forceful off-the-cuff remarks yesterday, wondering how candidates who talk about staring down Vladimir Putin can be afraid of orphaned children. Chris Christie reinforced the concept by rejecting even that low bar with a direct quote: “…I don’t think orphans under five should be admitted to the United States…”
Christie and Trump both completely misrepresented our immigrant vetting procedures, claiming that either we had few or none at all. Both gross lies. Even more annoying, Trump comes up with lines such as “I’ll bomb the shit out of them,” he and his audience somehow unaware that we are already bombing the shit out of them and have been for at least a year.
Watch the damn news, people!
Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz are proposing a nebulous religious test that would somehow verify true Christians, who according to Bush, “are never terrorists” and could therefore be admitted to the country. I have a short answer to that: Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. Not to mention the Christian zealots who murder abortion providers.
Huckabee posited that people who grew up in the desert might be sent to Minnesota and unable to cope. Larry Wilmore neatly mocked that little stupidity with a riff on how difficult wearing a coat could be for people who just risked their lives to escape war.
The mere possibility that one of the Paris attackers got there via the refugee route has turned the global conversation in the direction of mistrust of all the Syrian refugees. And it sounds the most virulent right here. That’s presidential politics in the U-S-A for you.
So where am I going with this? As in post 9/11 2001, I will be dragged kicking and screaming through a hard right turn that could end with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and President Trump in the White House. They are that good at converting terror into electoral victory.
Even if they don’t get in, the word cloud that surrounds us all these days, be it in email or in the Twitterverse, has already drifted into Chinese Exclusion Act territory. It helps no one, but grants a sick legitimacy to terrorists, when Jeb Bush portrays their acts as “…a clash of civilizations.”
Do you remember GWOT … the Republican acronym that never caught on? The “Global War On Terror.” A steady stream of color-coded terror alerts poured out of Washington, and the GOP rode that homegrown fear mongering straight to victory in the ’04 presidential election. They actually won the popular vote that time, if not by much.
I don’t need to tell you that they would have defeated President Al Gore by a LOT in that same election. And politics being what they are, I can scarcely blame them for employing such a winning strategy. If only they could govern as effectively as they campaign!
But the strategy of fear has consequences. Terror was on the lips of every newsman and opinionator on TV and radio for days, week, months. Years. You could spend 24 hours a day listening to right-wing talk radio and fail to hear everything that was being offered.
Osama and his terrorist comrades were holed up in caves, or at least hiding inside high-walled compounds. But we were talking about them constantly, worrying about an attack, speeding two trillion of our nation’s dollars killing people halfway across there world. And maiming or radicalizing those we didn’t kill.
OBL may be dead now, but by many measures the terrorists won.
In separate articles, Paul Krugman and Noah Feldman both argue that France’s President Hollande did ISIS a strategic service when he called the attacks “an act of war.” It’s a favor we’ve been handing extremists for decades: legitimacy.
When I first saw Hollande’s “act of war” quote, I wondered what else he might have expected, since France has been actively bombing ISIS targets for some time. Europeans (my own ancestry) often exhibit the truly myopic view of expecting no consequences for anything they do. ISIS may deserve to be wiped off the planet, but you know they will fight. And they don’t mind dying for their cause. Do we?
We have a talent for turning friends into enemies. Or maybe it’s just our habit of picking shitty friends. This article in salon.com argues that our support of Osama bin Laden during his 1980s opposition to the U.S.S.R. was the beginning of Al Qaeda. We sent troops into Saudi Arabia’s holy lands during the 1990 Gulf War, then kept them there after the conflict ended. Bin Laden protested repeatedly, got no results, and came to view us as occupiers and oppressors.
You’ve heard “The Right” disavow this, but it’s true: we-the-USA radicalized Osama bin Laden. The network that we approvingly watched bin Laden build during the 80s became Al Qaeda during the 90s. We did it with our usual American clumsiness, by not reading a local situation properly.
One decade later, we did it again in Iraq following our 6-week victory over Saddam Hussein. We defeated the Iraqi army and disbanded the Sunni government. Won the war handily, as promised. But then, as we have done so disappointingly often, we lost the peace through inattentiveness and incompetence. And in doing so, we set the stage for ISIS.
It’s the problem with most revolutions: what about the governing after? Without it, you wind up with new dictators like Napoleon, or Putin. Military coups, at least, have a power structure in place after they succeed. Ouch, did I just praise that kind of repressive aftermath?
We threw an army’s worth of young Iraqi men into unemployment, with no plan for keeping them busy, and left them with no income to feed or house their families. Then we paraded around their cities like occupying conquerers, armed to the teeth. Why wouldn’t they build roadside bombs to punish their oppressors?
So much for Dick Cheney’s “We’ll be welcomed as liberators” theory. It’s way more like Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn rule”—you break it, you bought it. Fourteen years after 9/11, we are still in the Middle East. We are still, as Rand Paul aptly noted, borrowing money from China to spend somewhere else.
And we are still killing people. We are the proverbial bull thrashing around in Pottery Barn. Do we know how to stop?
PS: A Saturday Night Live skit that I cannot find online comes to mind: Dana Carvey as George H.W. Bush during a debate: “We have learned the lesson of Vietnam: Stay out of Vietnam!”
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(Political Survivor #26 – Stay informed…Remember to Subscribe)