Joseph Loconte, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and commentator for National Public Radio, is the editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.
U.S. authorities announced last weekend that they had prevented a suspected Muslim terrorist cell from launching a "chilling" plot to destroy John F. Kennedy International Airport—a scheme to kill thousands of civilians and create economic chaos by blowing up a jet fuel artery that runs through densely populated neighborhoods. “Had the plot been carried out,” warned U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf, “it could have resulted in unfathomable damage, deaths, and destruction.”
Yet just 24 hours later, Democratic presidential hopefuls debated America’s war on terrorism as if the airport terror plot were a fraternity prank run amok. The CNN-sponsored debate—which included Senator Joseph Biden, Senator Hilary Clinton, Senator Christopher Dodd, John Edwards, Mike Gravel, Rep. Dennis Kuscinich, Senator Barack Obama and Governor William Richardson—showcased the debilitating failure of political leaders to think deeply about the threat of radical Islam.
Sen. Obama was asked if the Bush administration’s strategy to thwart terror at home has been a success, since the United States has not suffered any terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11. Without hesitating, Mr. Obama delivered his studied judgment of the matter: “No.”
Obama conceded that “there are some things that the Bush Administration has done well,” but failed to name them. The Patriot Act, electronic surveillance techniques, aggressive interrogation of terror suspects, the killing and capture of scores of al Qaeda leaders and operatives—none of these unpleasant features of America’s war on terror received any credit.
The ever-eccentric Rep. Kucinich, in fact, dismissed the Patriot Act as “unconstitutional” and then seemed to drift into a Zen-like trance: “Americans need to reconnect with our deeper sense of self here,” he said. “And I want to have what I call the 9-10 Forum to recreate—to help us reconnect with a deeper sense of who we are as Americans.”
Meanwhile, John Edwards repeated his charge that the “war on terror” is merely a bogus slogan—“the global war on terror bumper sticker” —to justify Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, torture, and all the rest of it. The hacks at al-Jazeera television, who watch CNN closely, probably broke into applause at that moment of high statesmanship.
As the subject turned to Iraq, the exchange became even more surreal. Senator Dodd declared that “there is no military solution” to the conflict—as if al Qaeda cells and Sunni extremists could be wooed into a political solution with flowers and candy. Governor Richardson called for a resolution to “deauthorize” the war and “move forward with a timetable” to withdraw American troops.
CNN host Wolf Blitzer, to his credit, injected a painful shot of reality.
MR. BLITZER: But what about genocide? What about the possibility of genocide?
GOV. RICHARDSON: No residual forces…Obviously genocide is something—in Darfur—you know I have been involved in that issue. I believe what we need to do there is stop this genocide.
MR. BLITZER: But what about Iraq, if it were, God forbid, to happen?
GOV. RICHARDSON: Well, obviously I would keep troops in Kuwait, where they are wanted. I would move them to Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda…
And on it went. Not a single candidate contemplated the consequences of failure in Iraq—what the triumph of al Qaeda and Islamic radicalism, with access to immense oil reserves, might mean for America’s national security. No one paused to talk seriously about the horrific potential of the foiled airport plot. (As a native of Brooklyn and a Long Islander who has logged many miles on the Long Island Expressway, I can tell you that the attack easily could have crippled the entire New York region.) No one admitted that the failed plot confirms the judgment of the 9/11 Commission Report, a judgment repeatedly endorsed by the Bush Administration: that Islamic radicals are in a war to destroy the United States, that they are planning another massive assault on U.S. soil, that they will use the most destructive weapons imaginable against civilian populations to accomplish their goal.
While on the campaign trail last weekend, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was asked about the airport terror scheme. He insisted that the United States must remain on the offensive. “The reality is that there are people in America who don’t realize now how serious this threat is.”
Yes, there are many in America who steadfastly refuse to realize the existential threat of radical Islam. The real tragedy, though, is that some of them are running for president.