‘Jihad Jane’ and the politics of fear
Far from ‘keeping America safe’, the elite’s depiction of the US as fragile and at-risk makes even lonely weirdos seem like a deadly threat.
An advert produced by the group Keep America Safe, led by Liz Cheney (daughter of former vice-president Dick), recently caused howls of protest. The video demanded that the Department of Justice (DOJ) release the names of the officials who served as pro bono defence lawyers for the Guantanamo Bay detainees, who were labelled ‘the Al-Qaeda Seven’.
Somewhat unexpectedly, conservatives joined liberals in denouncing Keep America Safe’s attacks on the DOJ lawyers. A group of lawyers and policy experts, including Kenneth Starr (the independent counsel who investigated Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky) and officials who served in Republican administrations from Reagan to George W Bush, called the advert ‘shameful’. In defending the seven DOJ lawyers, they noted that ‘the American tradition of zealous representation of unpopular clients is at least as old as John Adams’s representation of the British soldiers charged in the Boston massacre’. Even some of the most ardent defenders of the Bush-Cheney war on terror had to concede that the advert was ‘unfortunate’.
Because of the bipartisan condemnation, the Obama administration, and attorney general Eric Holder in particular, can easily brush the advert aside. The reaction to the video reveals just how isolated the former Republican hardliners associated with Cheney have become. Even the Tea Party movement, currently dominating talk on the right, treats the anti-terror policies associated with the Bush administration with suspicion at best.
Yet the routing of the Cheneys in this case does not mean that the broader Republican effort to mark the Democrats as soft on terror will be as readily dismissed. The conservative line may gain traction, but not because, as Frank Rich argued in the New York Times, the US is an ‘amnesia-prone nation’ that is likely to forget that it was the Bush regime that failed to ‘keep America safe’ under its watch. Rather, the Republican message may take hold because Obama and the Democrats continue to respond defensively to charges that they put the rights of terrorists ahead of the country’s security.
From maintaining the Guantanamo facility to continuing the use of military commissions to try terror suspects, Obama has conceded national security positions associated with Bush and Cheney. When questioned about reading so-called ‘Miranda rights’ to the Christmas Day ‘underpants bomber’, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Obama argued that this was Bush’s approach to would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid – thus endorsing the prior administration as the prime authority on the subject. As Glenn Greenwald rightly notes, Obama ‘can’t stand on his own two feet and forcefully justify civilian trials or Mirandising terrorist suspects; he has to take refuge in the fact that Bush also did it – as though that proves it’s the right thing to do, because Bush/Cheney is the standard-bearer of Toughness on Terrorism.’
Despite the unpopularity of the Bush regime, the election of Obama has not dislodged a basic impression of the two parties. The Republicans are supposed to be the tough guys, willing to do what it takes to protect American lives. Like Jack Bauer on the TV show 24, they are not going to let a few laws get in way of fighting war. Likewise, Democrats are portrayed as weak and wavering. A recent report from Democratic Party pollsters says ‘there is evidence of rising public concern about the president’s handling’ of national security issues, and that Republican gains, by depicting the administration as lenient on terrorists, should be ‘a wake-up call to President Obama, his party, and progressives’.
But this ‘Republicans strong, Democrats weak’ discussion obscures a more fundamental consensus between the two parties. Both establish anti-terror polices on the premise that the country is vulnerable and at risk. And both therefore overplay the threat posed by possible terror attacks.
The common assumption is that the American people are afraid, worried about the next explosion, and therefore in need of heavy state protection. And since, therefore, all it takes to traumatise the masses is an isolated bomb, it is taken as a given that any party in office at the time of an attack would be severely damaged in political terms. In this, both parties have agreed to allow the terrorists to define success, and have collaborated in reorganising US life around tiny groups.
When American politicians talk about getting ‘tough’ on terrorism, about pursuing a ‘war’ on it, they are actually using code-words for saying ‘we are scared shitless’. And in that respect, both parties are wimps; in fact, if anything, the noisier Republicans are the biggest wimps of all.
The authorities’ response to the news this past week that three Americans were arrested on terror charges indicates the tendency to overreact and feel vulnerable. Most prominent among the three is Colleen LaRose, otherwise known by her online nickname ‘JihadJane’. She was indicted in connection with an attempt to kill the Swedish artist Lars Vilks, whose cartoon depicted the prophet Mohammed on top of a dog. Another American was Jamie Paulin-Ramirez. Like JihadJane, Paulin-Ramirez is also a white woman from the suburbs. Reading about their backgrounds, it is clear that both are disturbed individuals, and JihadJane was particularly incompetent in carrying out her role in the ‘plot’.
You might have imagined that these two women could be easily dismissed as isolated and unstable, but instead their actions have led to serious concerns about a spreading threat across the American heartland. According to the DOJ, the fact ‘that a woman from suburban America agreed to carry out murder overseas and to provide material support to terrorists underscores the evolving nature of the threat we face’. Former CIA agent and terror expert Reuel Marc Gerecht writes: ‘We can only hope that LaRose isn’t the cutting edge of a new wave of jihadist recruitments in the United States. The holy-warrior success with Major Malik Hassan at Fort Hood and other recently discovered want-to-be jihadists in the United States are worrying.’ Statements like these say more about the elite’s own insecurities than any objective danger.
There is a need to redefine what is meant by being tough on terrorism. A truly ‘tough’ approach would be to promote the idea of resilience. After the 9/11 attacks, Colin Powell declared: ‘We’re Americans. We don’t walk around terrified.’ But this outlook has never been thoroughly pursued and embedded in the policy response; in fact, just the opposite.
The latest example of running scared is the Obama administration’s decision to back down on holding the trial for 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court in Manhattan. The reason given for the about-face is the large cost involved. But the only reason the cost was so high was because the proposed security operation was so over-the-top. In turn, the scale of that proposed operation reflected the extent of fear among the authorities (and not – it is important to add – the public). Writing in Foreign Policy, James Traub asks a good question: ‘What happened to New York’s moxie?’ Obama wants to appear sensitive to local New York concerns, but his reversal only makes him look indecisive and scared. The Republicans are no better – they didn’t want a trial in New York in the first place.
Real defiance and resilience would mean not letting our lives be disrupted by the possibility of an act of terrorism. The ‘success’ of a terror attack really comes down to our response to it. Bombs can inflict casualties and injuries, but such attacks will not have an enduring impact unless we let them. By reordering our societies to meet the supposed threat of terror, and waiting in fear for the next attack, we have already lost.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his new blog, The American Situation, here.