On election day, the voters may very well send George W. Bush back to Texas because he failed to prevent the 9-11 attack. That would be a sweet irony. The Bush campaign is trying hard to make the election turn on national security. That's the terrain they think they can win on. But it may be their political burial ground, because Bush's anti-terrorism record is now so full of holes.
The Bushies have only themselves to blame. They do not understand the American people well enough. They want the voters to ask
themselves: "Will Bush or Kerry keep me safer in the next four years?" But that's not how the average voter puts the question.
The average voter asks: "Did the incumbent keep me safe during the last four years?" Not "pretty much safe," or "relatively safe," or "as safe as one could reasonably expect." To most Americans, the question is: "Did the president keep me totally and absolutely safe?"
The people want to be perfectly secure. They expect to be perfectly secure. It's an old American tradition, born partly from the accident of geography. We live in a country bounded north and south by militarily weak nations, and east and west by huge oceans.
The belief in perfect security comes even more from our cultural traditions. Since colonial times, white Americans have been in the grip of a widespread belief that we are God's chosen people, the new Israel. Like the Israelites of biblical times, we are surrounded by enemies. But we are supposed to have a special privileged status. God has promised us that His sheltering hand will protect us from harm. Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we should fear no evil.
George W. used that line from Psalm 23 in his speech on the night of 9-11. But his campaign strategists seem to have forgotten what it means. To the average American, it means that this nation is supposed to be perfectly safe from every evil, especially the evil of foreign attack. The people want "America invulnerable." (The book of that title, by Chace and Carr, traces the history of our quixotic quest for perfect security. It's worth a read.)
If the U.S. is supposed to be invulnerable, and a bunch of foreigners could kill nearly three thousand of us on our own soil, then something went terribly wrong. Whoever was on guard that day obviously failed in their duty. And the captain of the guard must bear ultimate responsibility. If Bush loses this election, that will probably be the number one reason.
If so, the voters would be doing the right thing -- turning the president out of office -- but for the wrong reason.
Suppose the Bush administration had heeded the urgent pleas of Richard Clarke. Suppose they had made stopping Osama's agents their very highest goal. Suppose they had done everything that Clarke and other antiterrorism experts advised. How would we on the left, in the peace and justice movement, have responded?
We would have called it fear-mongering. We would have decried their skewed priorities. Every time they stopped an Arab tourist on suspicion, or made us take off our shoes at the airport, we would have denounced the emerging police state. And we would have been right.
But that is just what Clarke and other antiterrorism specialists were demanding before 9-11. That's what Bush is now being pilloried for not doing. He failed to create the impermeable fence around the United States that most Americans have always expected, regardless of the cost in civil liberties or distorted public priorities.
The Kerry campaign is sitting back with a big smile, watching Bush's failure make headlines. Kerry does not have to promise perfect security. He just has to let others repeat, over and over, that the incumbent failed to give us perfect security. Our tradition of cultural expectations will do the rest.
Now we have to make a choice. We could sit back and smile along with the Kerryites. We could say that it matters not how or why Bush goes back to the ranch next January 20, as long as he goes. We could urge the voters to do the right thing, even if for the wrong reason.
Then we would be giving tacit approval to the very dangerous belief in America invulnerable. That belief leads to all sorts of terrible things. Detained Arab tourists and shoes removed at the airport are merely the tip of the iceberg. We destroyed Vietnam and Iraq to keep America invulnerable. We trained torturers in every Latin American land, and in other lands around the world, to keep America invulnerable. We put thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert to keep America invulnerable (and we still keep many of them there). The list goes on and on.
If we applaud Richard Clarke and his kind now, we cannot urge the voters to do the right thing for the right reason. We cannot argue that militarism and tough "security measures" are the wrong approach to the problem. We cannot explain how Bush's foreign policy, like Clinton's, breeds anti-American violence. We cannot talk about the changes we want to see in U.S. foreign policy, so that the victims of our policy won't feel driven to commit suicide in an effort to deter us. When it comes to so-called terrorism, those are the right reasons to turn Bush out of office.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that a Kerry administration would understand that. Oh, they will say all the right words. But Kerry is surrounding himself with former Clinton advisors, who differ from Bush's advisors much more on means than on ends. The Kerryites' main public criticism of Bush is that he failed to provide perfect security. By keeping that fantasy alive, they may win an election. But they will perpetuate the foundations of the dangerous and immoral bipartisan consensus on foreign policy.
Any nation that clings to a fantasy of perfect security makes its inhabitants less secure. When that nation has the greatest military power in the history of the world, it endangers not only its own people but all the people of the world. If we play on the fantasy of perfect security to oust Bush, we may be doing the right thing in the short run. But in the long run, we will learn the hard way that T. S. Eliot was right. The greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. firstname.lastname@example.org