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Fear and loathing in America - the election's driving forces

November 07, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

This time it wasn't the economy, stupid. Voters on Tuesday managed to find something that concerns them even more: their lives.

After all, a two-tenths of a percent dip in the Consumer Price Index doesn't do you a tremendous amount of good if you're blown up.

Clearly, it was two life-or-death issues that re-elected President Bush: Literal, as in terrorism, and figurative, as in saving your eternal soul.

When the voters' primary concern was the economy, jobs, health care or the war in Iraq, they went for John Kerry with some rather astounding percentages. But when the driving issue was terror or morality, Bush got the tremendous nod.

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Core constituencies aside, people who were angry about something went for Kerry, people who were afraid of something went for Bush. This was definitely an election about fear and loathing.

Three years, in other words, have done little to erase the sting of 9/11. Voters who went for Bush could hang their hats on this salient fact: We were caught off guard in the initial attacks, but since then, American soil has been safe. That means something. No, not just something, it means a lot.

And the president's most effective refrain was that if we're fighting them over there, they will be too busy to expend any energy over here. Like the war or not, that does make a degree of sense. (The paradox, of course, is that the regions least likely to be attacked - the countryside - demonstrated the most fear of terror, while the regions most likely to be attacked - high-density, urban areas - shrugged off the threat. Ground Zero itself went heavily for Kerry.)

The race was tight enough that bin Laden's happy little spectral cameo right before the election may have been enough to tip the scales, once again planting terror in people's minds. More than that, though, this election most likely turned on the outrageous and barbaric beheadings of innocents in Iraq.

In a society where reality TV counts as high culture, Americans may not understand much. But they understood this - a bloody, raw sock in the emotional solar plexus. Had the terrorists chosen a simple gunshot as their preferred method of execution, who knows how the election might have turned out. But beheadings rocked everyone's soul. They were a Halloween horror flick, turned all too real.

Some people were surmising that bin Laden is ignorant of American culture, and didn't realize his presence and methods would rally voters against the president, whom he wished would be defeated.

Obviously I have no more inside information than your average CIA operative, but that note strikes me as a singularly flat one.

Bin Laden has shown himself to be much more willing to learn about our culture than we are to learn about his. Every word of his Al Pacinoesque "I'm still standing" song and dance last week had to be every bit as calculated as terrorist attacks themselves.

He also must recognize that only two near-term events would be capable of bringing down his movement: 1. An entire world united against him. 2. Winning.

The divide and conquer strategy is as old as military history itself. An ostracized America? That's doable. But even a rogue terrorist, faced with the crushing force of the entire globe, would likely see the odds and decide to go back to tending goats.

And what if America were to say, "You know, al Qaida? You have a point; you win. We're getting out of Iraq and Saudi Arabia and we're going to let the Arabs and Israelis figure it out for themselves."

If I know my revolutionaries, bin Laden, in the dark recesses of his dark mind, doesn't want this. He needs a cause, a rallying cry to attract his recruits. Like a dog chasing a car, rare is the revolutionary who knows what to do once he catches his prize. Good fighters typically don't know how to govern and good governors typically don't know how to fight. The analogy can even be extended to a lesser degree to our past two presidents. Clinton knew how to govern and Bush knows how to protect. Neither man, frankly, was/is too adept with the other course.

Where revolutions have succeeded they have been led by a group of people with disparate talents (the Founding Fathers) and not a power-crazed zealot (Robespierre) at the top.

The zealot may think he knows what he wants and have an ideal for how the world ought to work, but deep down, the joy is in the hunt. To take away the chase is to take away the thumb and forefinger from the neck of a blown-up balloon.

By uniting the world, Kerry may - may - have offered a more effective long-term cure for terrorism. But it is doubtful he would have echoed Bush's gloves-off determinism to take the fight to the terrorists anytime, anywhere.

If you have a head cold, you can treat the symptoms or you can sit around waiting for science to find a cure. Finding a cure would be ideal, but there's a lot to be said for feeling better, and safer, in the meantime. And as heads continue to roll in the Middle East, Americans felt safer with Bush.

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