Deciphering Homeland Security: How Thin Is The Line? genre: Just Jihad & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

A Thin Line

In the aftermath of 9/11, the President made the remark that the effort to prevent terrorism was a daunting task. I believe his characterization concluded that we had to be successful every time while the terrorists simply have to achieve their goals once in order to be effective. I recall agreeing with the logic though I think the time that has passed since the last terrorist attack on American soil tends to give us a sense of security that may be overly optimistic.

That's not to say that our efforts haven't been effective. I have no doubt that we have made significant advances in monitoring and preventing another 9/11. Regardless, the events in the UK are a harsh reminder that there are those willing to execute another attack and the reality is that we have limited abilities to prevent such events. Fortunately, those who carried out the attacks in the UK apparently lacked the sophistication to achieve their desired results.

Notwithstanding, the events demonstrate that despite the UK's expertise with terrorist activities and an elaborate network of cameras...a network that includes one camera for every fifteen citizens...little can be done to prevent attacks. Granted, a number of plots have been foiled over the years and our intelligence efforts are not limited to visual surveillance, but the current round of activity demonstrates that we simply cannot account for every plot and every ill-intentioned individual or group.

A new report from ABC News warns that another "spectacular" attack may be in the works and planned to take place this summer. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has responded that there exists no credible evidence to corroborate the leaked speculation...and while the average American has no way to gauge the threat...one can't help but harken back to the President's warning.

As British police investigated two failed car bombs in London and a fiery attack on Glasgow's airport by a fuel-filled vehicle, U.S. officials tightened security at transport hubs without raising the country's overall alert level.

"We do not currently have any specific threat information that is credible about a particular attack on the United States," Chertoff told Fox News.

ABC News, quoting a senior U.S. official, said on Sunday a secret law enforcement report prepared for the Department of Homeland Security warned that al Qaeda planned to carry out a "spectacular" attack this summer.

"This is reminiscent of the warnings and intelligence we were getting in the summer of 2001," ABC quoted the unidentified official as saying.

"Al Qaeda and its affiliates do intend to carry out further attacks against the United States and the West," Chertoff said.

"We also know that they tend to want to do attacks that are spectacular or high-profile, so it's not surprising to have analysts comment on the fact that this kind of an attack is a very definite possibility," he said.

Given the renewed discussion of an attack on U.S. soil, I began to ponder what the reaction might be to another attack. Two thoughts immediately came to mind. First, there are two views of our efforts to curb terrorism since 9/11...one being the view that our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq have seriously damaged al Qaeda and allowed us to battle them overseas so we don't have to battle them on our soil...and the other being that our efforts in Iraq have, for the most part, been a distraction from the primary objective of dismantling al Qaeda and they may have actually served to incite more ideological extremism making us more of a target and more vulnerable.

Second, just how would the American voter interpret an attack on American soil and what impact would it have on the two prevailing views mentioned above? One school of thought would suggest that voters might react as they did post 9/11...with renewed support for the efforts of the President and a recommitment to an aggressive and preemptive approach that seeks to eliminate the threats that may originate from regimes sympathetic to terrorists. The alternate analysis would presume that an attack would elicit a wholesale repudiation of the Bush administration's efforts and further calls for a withdrawal from Iraq and a shift away from employing a conventional military model to combat terrorism.

I've long felt that there is a very fine line between continued support for this president (meager as it may be) and even more vocal demands for a dramatic change in strategy. I view another terrorist event as the impetus that would wipe away what remains of that fine line...leaving an already weakened Bush administration virtually alone in its beliefs.

Fear is a strange beast and one that the GOP has used quite effectively since 9/11. Prior to the 2006 midterm elections I discussed a psychological construct I studied in college...Terror Management Theory...the notion that humans, in their unique awareness, are always attempting to deal with the anxiety created by their pending mortality.

The theory posits that people tend to embrace established institutions and act more conservatively when they are made anxious about their mortality...which has generally manifested as continued support for the President...particularly during the 2004 election. Recall that a new bin Laden tape emerged just days before the election.

The 2006 election saw the Democrats swept to power in Congress primarily on the basis of opposition to the Iraq war. It would be safe to conclude that this shift happened in the absence of any significant mortality triggering event...meaning that while people may have viewed the war in Iraq as ineffective in fighting terrorism or at the least a failing effort in the export of democracy...they weren't experiencing innate feelings of personal danger.

As we approach the 2008 election, it remains to be seen how thoughts about, or reactions to, a terrorist attack might play out. Let me offer my own expectations. Underlying the notion that events which triggers thoughts of mortality will elicit certain reactions must be a measure of the confidence one places in established institutions (previously defined to be associated with a conservative leaning). However, I contend that what is defined to be the conservative reaction is actually a function of the rhetoric used to delineate the opposing choices.

It gets complicated but please stay with me. The definition of a conservative action cannot be viewed absent an historical perspective...something that requires the passage of time to be relevant and revealed. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our perceptions could be equated with what occurred following Pearl Harbor...and our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq mirrored our entry into World War II...we were aggrieved and we sought to punish those we perceived to have inflicted the aggression. No doubt the overwhelming support for our President matched that which existed following Pearl Harbor.

As World War II unfolded over the next four years, the heinous nature of the enemy and the threat they represented continued to grow...meaning the personal threat remained and the original assumptions about the enemy only worsened...all of which served to maintain the strong support for the government. In other words, what they warned us of materialized...the reality matched the rhetoric.

Iraq has unfolded in approximately the same amount of time, however, the nature of the enemy and the threat they represented has, by and large, diminished over time...meaning the personal threat that Americans initially felt when associating Iraq with 9/11 did not materialize in the same manner as World War II. At the same time, the rhetoric became increasingly divorced from the reality...what they warned us of did not materialize.

Returning to historical considerations in order to define the conservative reaction that is discussed in Terror Management Theory, some four years down the road, voters have once again evaluated the threat posed by Iraq and the reaction to that perceived threat (keep in mind the importance of time). 2006 marked the growing emergence of doubt and a shifting belief that our actions in Iraq actually represented the conservative reaction (the one that could be associated with an affirming historical context).

Voter reevaluation began to view our efforts in Iraq as commensurate with another historical event, one that became associated with an act of questionable or unwarranted intervention...one that wasn't in the long run viewed to be the conservative approach...one we call Vietnam. A word of caution...it is imperative that one thinks about this analysis in terms of politics and leadership and not in terms of military service. I am not making derogatory statements about the efforts of our military personnel. Their actions remain noble regardless.

Having now established the current trend in voter perspective...the one that has the benefit of time and historical context...we can begin to predict voter reaction to a terrorist strike on U.S. soil. First, one needs to identify the present rhetoric being offered by our government (the established institution)...statements like "We are fighting them over there so we won't have to fight them here" and "Our efforts in Iraq have served to prevent another attack in the United States" and "Iraq has become the central front for terrorism and the war on terror".

Secondly, one must remember that a terrorist strike would serve as the triggering mechanism for the anxiety associated with fear for one's personal safety...thoughts of mortality. With those factors in place, we should be able to predict the response. I contend that voters will, in fact, view more of the same (a continuation of the existing Bush administration policy) to be the more reckless reaction...one that won't be viewed to be the aligned with time tested and historically vetted conservative actions.

In fact, one may be safe to conclude that the long history of the Bush administration effectively utilizing the theory of Terror Management would come to an end...an end precipitated by a miscalculation of the underlying factors that drive the theory. In the end, the reaction of the individual (in this case the average voter) is dependent upon a clear understanding of the definitional attachments they place upon the actions of the established institutions...in this case the Bush administration.

In that regard, a terrorist attack would likely lead voters to conclude that a drastic change is needed...one that realigns rhetoric with reality...one that refocuses attention on the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his associates and that acknowledges that Iraq can no longer drain huge sums of capital and resources if those efforts have not removed the personal threat to the citizenry that would result from the occurrence of an attack.

Finally, in an ironic twist of tragic proportions...one that time and history would undoubtedly record as part and parcel of an obtuse and oblique Bush legacy...a terrorist attack would bring the Bush administrations reign of terror over the American voter to an inevitable and indisputable end.

Daniel DiRito | July 2, 2007 | 1:15 PM
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