The president is trying for the third time to make terrorism his big campaign issue -- are Americans going to finally snap out of it?
An evil symbiosis does exist between Muslim terrorists and American politicians, but it is not the one Republicans describe. The jihadists need George W. Bush to sustain their cause. His bloody crusade in the Middle East bolsters their accusation that America is out to destroy Islam. The president has unwittingly made himself the lead recruiter of willing young martyrs.
More to the point, it is equally true that Bush desperately needs the terrorists. They are his last frail hope for political survival. They divert public attention, at least momentarily, from his disastrous war in Iraq and his shameful abuses of the Constitution. The "news" of terror -- whether real or fantasized -- reduces American politics to its most primitive impulses, the realm of fear-and-smear where George Bush is at his best.
So, once again in the run-up to a national election, we are visited with alarming news. A monstrous plot, red alert, high drama playing on all channels and extreme measures taken to tighten security.
The White House men wear grave faces, but they cannot hide their delight. It's another chance for Bush to protect us from those aliens with funny names, another opportunity to accuse Democrats of aiding and abetting the enemy.
This has worked twice before. It could work again this fall unless gullible Americans snap out of it. Wake up, folks, and recognize how stupid and wimpish you look. I wrote the following two years ago during a similar episode of red alerts: "Bush's 'war on terrorism' is a political slogan -- not a coherent strategy for national defense -- and it succeeds brillantly only as politics. For everything else, it is quite illogical."
Where is the famous American skepticism? The loose-jointed ability to laugh at ourselves in anxious moments? Can't people see the campy joke in this docudrama called "Terror in the Sky"? The joke is on them. I have a suspicion that a lot of Americans actually enjoy the occasional fright since they know the alarm bell does actually not toll for them. It's a good, scary movie, but it's a slapstick war.
The other day at the airport in Burlington, Vermont, security guards confiscated liquid containers from two adolescent sisters returning home from vacation. The substance was labeled "Pure Maple Syrup." I am reminded of the Amish pretzel factory that was put on Pennsylvania's list of targets. Mothers with babes in arms are now told they must take a swiq of their baby formula before they can board the plane. I already feel safer.
The latest plot uncovered by British authorities may be real. Or maybe not. We do not yet know enough to be certain. The early reporting does not reassure or settle anything (though the Brits do sound more convincing than former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who gave "terror alerts" such a bad reputation). Tony Blair is no more trustworthy on these matters than Bush and Cheney. British investigators are as anxious as their American counterparts to prove their vigilance (and support their leaders). The close collaboration with Pakistani authorities doesn't exactly add credibility.
One question to ask is: Why now? The police have had a "mole" inside this operation since late 2005, but have yet to explain why they felt the need to swoop down and arest alleged plotters at this moment (two days after the Connecticut primary produced a triumph for anti-war politics).
The early claim that a massive takedown of a dozen airliners was set for August 16 is "rubbish," according to London authorities. So who decided this case was ripe for its public rollout? Blair consulted Cheney: What did they decide? American economist Jamie Galbraith was on a ten-hour flight from Manchester, England, to Boston on the day the story broke, and has wittily reflected on other weak points in the official story line.
The point is, Americans are not entirely defenseless pawns. They can keep their wits and reserve judgment. They can voice loudly the skepticism that Bush and company have earned by politicizing of the so-called "war" from the very start. Leading Democrats are toughening up. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid uses plain English to explain what the Republicans up to -- using genuine concerns of national security "as a political wedge issue. It is disgusting, but not surprising."
Instead of cowering in silence, the opposition party should start explaining this sick joke. Political confusion starts with the ill-conceived definition of a "war" that's best fought by police work, not heavy brigades on a battlefield. Forget the hype, call for common sense and stout hearts.
All we know, for sure, is that Bush and his handlers are not going to back off the fear-and-smear strategy until it loses an election for them. Maybe this will be the year.
William Greider is the author of, most recently, "The Soul of Capitalism" (Simon & Schuster).