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Our Worst Fears Realized: Terrorism Has Become a Political Wedge Issue

Benghazi didn’t really register on the media terrorism richter scale. Blame the fact that the attack took place a continent away, blame the fact that Libya had been at war a year earlier, blame the media-consuming 2012 election, or blame the fact that only four people died as opposed to nearly 3,000; for whatever reason, Americans just didn’t have the same visceral reaction that they had been attacked as they felt on 9/11.

The lack of interest by the American public didn’t stop a few Republicans and one conservative news channel from blaming President Obama for the attack.

We’ve been dreading this for years. After a future terrorist attack, instead of rallying together as a nation, one side of the political spectrum will stand up and say, “If we were in power, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Presidents (rightfully) don’t get blamed for hurricanes or earthquakes. In many ways, terror attacks--or mass shootings or assassinations--are like natural disasters: very rare and essentially random. Most Americans avoided blaming President Bush and his administration for failing to prevent the 9/11 attacks, though some (wrongly) tried to make this case years later.

This makes sense. 9/11 was a black swan event. Sure, some intelligence pointed to an attack, but tons of intelligence pointed to tons of other attacks too. Our national security establishment couldn’t read the signal through the noise. That isn’t that surprising; none of us saw it coming. (Outside of Tom Clancy, but if his books count as predictions, he’s been much more wrong than right.) As Bush said in 2004, “The person responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden.”

After 9/11, though, politicians have essentially “been warned”. Most politicians believe that if the next attack occurs on their watch, then they will pay at the polls. If anyone relaxes their guard, the public will blame them for the resulting terror attacks, even though most national security spending is more theater than effective.
The only way to avoid impending geometric increases in security spending is if both sides promise to not blame the other for terrorism. Both sides have to agree not to cross this line; both sides must agree not to make terrorism a political wedge issue.

Yet...it happened after Benghazi. Republicans, disappointingly including Senator John McCain just yesterday, on Meet the Press, have argued that the Obama administration is somehow responsible for the deaths on that day, as if President Obama had condoned it, or knew about it, or could have prevented it. Republican lawmakers blamed Secretary Clinton for the attack at her congressional hearings as well.

The problem isn’t just hypocrisy (You can’t blame a terrorist attack on the Secretary of State but not blame President Bush for 9/11; You can’t blame Susan Rice without judging Condoleezza Rice, as The Daily Show smacks down right here.) as much as it’s a big, large step in the wrong direction for the nation. As long as Presidents dread another attack more than anything else, then national security spending will keep growing. Wars and interventions around the globe will continue. Presidents will focus on the short term as opposed to the long. And Attorneys General will erode civil liberties in a quest to “prevent the next 9/11”.

All of this will happen, unless we stop terrorism from becoming a political issue.

One comment

On Meet The Press yesterday, John McCain said, “Do you care whether four Americans died? The reasons for that? Shouldn’t people be held accountable?”

Hypocrisy at its finest. McCain has never been held accountable for his central role in at least two foreign policy blunders. He failed to hold any Bush administration officials to account for 9/11, but all of a sudden on benghazi, he’s going for blood.

And he was one of the biggest proponents of both invading Iraq and pushing the message about WMDs. Where’s the accountability?

And the death toll for those two events is way higher.