Obama and Northwest 253

By Brian Till

January 5, 2010 5 min read

On Christmas day, the president was singing carols with his family in Hawaii when an aide arrived with news of the bungled Northwest flight 253 bombing.

He would wait three days before speaking publicly. He was, it's important to note, already immersed — more than usual, that is — in issues of terrorism and national security. Early in his vacation, he received an 80-page briefing on the Fort Hood shooting; after Christmas, he lead conference calls each day discussing the ongoing investigation.

The political right, led by Dick Cheney, began to sputter rage and angst. The president "is trying to pretend we are not at war," the former vice president asserted. Forget that Bush took six days to speak publicly following the failed Richard Reid shoe bombing in 2001; or that hysterics fuel, rather than undercut, terrorist ambitions; or that going to war on 'terror' is akin to going to war on the 'blitzkrieg,' or 'pincer movement,' or any other tactic. Never mind that Obama ordered a strike in Yemen on Dec. 17th in coordination with Yemeni forces.

No, Obama's initial response was the judicious, calm brand of leadership many of us have come to value: fighting extremist adversaries through bolstering alliances, striking strategically and staying quiet about the entire process. It's a more general temper that's been mistakenly labeled as "the politics of cool" by some commentators.

The president's rhetoric eventually shifted, though. His weekly radio address, perhaps encouraged by political advisers who worried about the administration looking weak, disinterested or unsympathetic, promised that "all those involved in the attempted act of terrorism on Christmas must know — you, too, will be held to account."

Those that were tied to the plot undoubtedly know they are under attack. The Obama administration, well before Christmas day, has begun funneling tens of millions of dollars to combat terrorist outposts in Yemen.

No, Obama's comment was aimed at an American public that, unfortunately, remains lustful for the kind of Toby Keith "boot in your eye" rhetoric that the Bush administration wore thin in the last decade. For all its chest beating, that administration proved inept eliminating the organization and offshoots that nearly hit us again on Christmas day.

It was that administration, not the current one, that believed Saddam Hussein stood as a more serious threat than jihadi networks that have since inspired dozens of listless young men around the world to strap bombs to their bodies and walk into crowds of strangers. And it was that administration, rather than this one, that revamped the intelligence apparatus — with the goal of better communication between agencies — which fell so drastically short sharing National Security Agency intercepts with the agencies that might have prevented a young, Nigerian radical from boarding a plane.

Plastering the failed terrorist on our newspapers and televisions delivers one of the primary ambitions all terrorists seek. Louise Richardson, a terrorism scholar and near IRA member herself, describes the ambition as threefold: Revenge, Renown and Reaction.

I've long worried that a new attack will put us into a tailspin of fear once more. Sure enough, calls to extract intelligence from the failed bomber by any means necessary weren't far down the pike; by New Years Eve, Rasmussen had released a poll that showed 58 percent of Americans were in favor of waterboarding the terror suspect.

The ultimate goal of terrorism is to inflict fear, to terrorize an opposition to the point that it tears itself apart, dismantles itself from within. Richard Reid, the failed shoe bomber, is one of the few terrorists that have ended up lawfully incarcerated, who we've dealt with according to our laws and values.

Perhaps the biggest problem in the "war on terror" is our willingness to compromise our own beliefs. Not even out of necessity, it's worth noting, but rather simply out of fear.

Brian Till, one of the nation's youngest syndicated columnists, is a research fellow for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. He can be contacted at [email protected] To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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