The latest atrocity attempted by al-Qaeda seems to be yet another example of history reprising a great tragedy as farce. What makes the misadventure of the underpants bomber on Flight 253 seem darkly ridiculous, however, is not only his incompetence in setting himself on fire, but the hysteria and hypocrisy of the reactions set off on the right by his painful squib. Then again, the Republican exploitative response to terror is as predictable as al-Qaeda's urge to kill.
That partisan reflex dates back to the original tragedy of 9/11, when Karl Rove, political boss of the Bush White House, decided that the remarkable bipartisan national unity of the months that followed the day of infamy should be torched to advance Republican midterm election prospects. His party commenced a scurrilous campaign that compared Democrats to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, while somehow blaming the Clinton administration for the president's failure to notice neon warnings of an imminent al-Qaeda attack. The Rove strategy was sinister and frankly cynical but highly effective — and permanently destructive.
Now, in the aftermath of the underpants bomber, we see the same right-wing political impulse acted out in a style that makes Rove seem sober-minded in retrospect.
In recent days, a conservative columnist has described Flight 253 as the contemporary Pearl Harbor. A claque of Republicans has expressed outrage that the slightly charred suspect, a wealthy young Nigerian, will be tried in a courthouse rather than a military tribunal — forgetting how many times the Bush administration treated terrorists precisely the same way. A chorus of Republican bloggers has linked the underpants bomber to terror masterminds supposedly released by President Obama from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, repeating a false TV report (and ignoring the fact that President Bush released hundreds more Gitmo detainees).
And a host of cable and radio personalities have insisted, with deadpan sincerity that must be hard to fake, that this attack resulted directly from the "distraction" caused by health-care reform and other domestic initiatives. The Washington Times recently asked its readers in an online poll: "Has President Obama's domestic agenda prevented him from properly addressing the terrorism threat against the United States?"
All this inane performance art is not without entertainment value, but it tends to dominate the discourse and severely retard any discussion of effective initiatives against al-Qaeda.
Indeed, right-wing exploitation of terrorism tends to serve the terrorists in several important ways: elevating them from a gang of fanatical criminals to the status of a sovereign power; echoing their worldview of a clash between Islam and modernity; and enhancing their prestige as a mortal threat to civilization.
Although the failure to stop the Flight 253 plot indicates some important shortcomings in our intelligence defenses, the episode also shows that al-Qaeda has deteriorated sharply from its pinnacle of potency in 2001. At first, this did not even appear to be an al-Qaeda attack because it did not involve multiple simultaneous bombings. Rather than the highly trained jihadis from Hamburg, this was carried out by a dim, poorly drilled, and ill-equipped college dropout. The poison ideology may still be spreading, but the tradecraft is in decline.
If we lived in a confident, politically mature society, we would be able to see that tabloid hysterics and direct-mail posturing will do nothing to defeat al-Qaeda. We would understand why President Obama prefers to engage Islam in dialogue rather than demonize a billion Muslims. We would realize that even as we endeavor to destroy a nihilistic enemy that perverts faith, we ought to maintain our composure, our values, and, at the very least, our capacity for honest debate.
But that would require an opposition loyal to something bigger than itself.