The American Reaction to 7/7
[Note: My thoughts and prayers extend to the British, whose compassion and resilience I’ve admired since my days at Oxford.]
Tim Naftali makes the rather persuasive case that, in an ideal world, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff would have refrained from raising the terror alert and calmly beefed up police presence instead. But his op-ed closes with a whimper:
Chertoff’s Bad Move (Slate)
Yet Chertoff’s raising the alert today struck the wrong balance between promoting vigilance and calming irrational fears. That’s because his department is trapped by the claims that Vice President Dick Cheney, in particular, made leading up to the 2004 election about a Republican monopoly on counterterrorism. By overpromising securityÃ¢€”and implying that Democrats neither understood terrorism nor were prepared to fight itÃ¢€”the Bush administration has given itself little choice but to overshoot in response to any terrorist attack anywhere. Chertoff’s response today was about one thing: cover. If there is an attack on the Washington Metro tomorrow, the federal government will be able to say to commuters, “Well, we warned you.”
I can somewhat agree that campaign rhetoric affects counterterror decisions. But I suspect that any national leader — Republican or Democrat — would have done something similar to Chertoff’s moves regardless of the political environment. In the face of crisis, public figures inevitably resort to the symbolic. It’s what many people, overwhelmed with emotion, find reassuring. When a three-year-old dies from a stray bullet, politicians immediately call for a reassessment of gun laws. When a celebrity becomes diagnosed with a rare disease, legislators immediately fund new scientific research. For every tragedy that takes place, there’s an injunction, a moratorium, or some other imprecise policy recourse at the government’s disposal. And, almost every time, it falls prey to the temptation of “overshoot[ing]” as the entire world watches.
I don’t mean to excuse Chertoff. Rather, I simply emphasize that, if you consider the Bush administration to be especially guilty of engaging in counterproductive symbolism, you need to outline a lot more than just its recent electoral tactics.