Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) is getting a pounding -- from liberal blogs and her Democratic rivals for the presidency -- because she had the temerity to warn voters that a possible terrorist attack before the election might strengthen the Republicans' hand. Chris Dodd called the comment "tasteless" and liberal bloggers are savaging her for, in their view, caving to the Republican framing of the terror issue.
These critics are being extraordinarily historically naive. If all Mrs. Clinton meant was that a genuine terror attack would empower Republicans, then sure -- under current social consensus, her comment is in poor taste. (Though this notion -- that examining the possible domestic fallout of terror attacks is vulgar, or unpatriotic, is one of those quasi-Victorian conventions that does not serve the vigorous debate needed in a time of crisis). But if Mrs. Clinton is also trying to warn voters about something even more difficult for us to talk about, then she is absolutely right -- even brave -- and her critics are frighteningly ill-informed of the past.
Mrs. Clinton is right to caution voters to consider the domestic outcome of a possible terror-related event before the election -- if you factor into her caution this taboo subtext: if the terror scare in question is exaggerated, or even manufactured, to serve a domestic political purpose.
Even as I write those words, I understand I am breaching a major social taboo of our particular time and place. There is a general polite consensus right now that maintains two no-debate areas: 1) you are not, if you are a serious person, allowed to note in public that it is possible that this White House -- or any U.S. leader ever -- might conceivably distort or hype the terror threat for political purposes (though plenty of serious people discuss this possibility in private); and 2) if you are a serious person, you are not allowed to suggest in public that it is remotely possible that in America elections could possibly be deliberately thrown off course any more directly than, say, the vote recount of 2000.
Sadly, these two current taboos fly in the face of history -- both of the history of weakening democracies overseas and the history of our own nation.
It is standard practice for corrupt leaders who are seeking a certain political outcome to hype or manipulate a terror threat -- or a threat of violent domestic subversion. While sometimes the threat is manufactured, frequently the hyped threat is based on a real danger.
Stalin warned of "sleepers" -- covert agents of capitalism who would rise up at a signal and wreak mayhem arming peaceful Soviet citizens -- an invented threat. But General Augusto Pinochet secured his coup in Chile in 1973 by elaborating upon a genuine threat: citizens were told that armed Unidad Popular insurgents, who were real, were planning a terror attack -- a mass assassination of national leaders -- a charge which was not real. He even showed their purported arms caches neatly lined up on TV and released, to the horror of Chileans, faked documents planning the alleged attack -- the sinisterly named "Plan Z." Similar tactics have been duplicated by corrupt leaders in many contexts worldwide.
Has the U.S. itself never hyped a threat for political purposes?
When it seemed as if there would be a war with France, the Sedition Act of 1798 was passed after President John Adams had managed to scare Americans about French refugees in the U.S. who were dead set, he warned, on scary "sedition." President Wilson's Committee on Public Information churned out propaganda in the form of unsubstantiated, terrifying atrocity stories to prepare the ground for reluctant American citizens to support our entry into the Great War. The Justice Department during World War Two generated support for the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans with suggestions that they might otherwise engage in "espionage" and "sabotage." While General Eisenhower did not participate in Senator Joe McCarthy's red-baiting directly leading up to the 1952 election, he did not repudiate the tactics. Moreover, by calling Democrats "traitors" in its party platform, Eisenhower's Republican Party exploited the Senator's alarming national iteration that a secret network of subversives had infiltrated the State Department, Hollywood and even the Army, intent on a bloody revolution to install a Communist regime in the U.S. -- a charge that, as Ted Morgan exhaustively noted in his history Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America, was a violent inflammation of a partial truth.
Has the U.S. never used agents provocateurs or fake documents to provoke, demonstrate or hype a threat for political purposes? David Cunningham, in his magisterial study There's Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence, documents the extensive use of agents provocateurs by the FBI during the 1960's and early 1970's. These provocateurs were trained to infiltrate groups such as the civil rights movement and, later, the anti-war movement, and engage in destruction of property and violence -- thus casting these entities in the public eye as scary, destabilizing threats to American values and social order.
As for fake documents to hype a terror threat -- well: sometimes the elephant is just right in the middle of the room. One only has to mention the yellowcake charge that led us straight into the Iraq war. This administration has ALREADY distorted a terror scare for political purposes -- in a fairly substantial way. As Frank Rich, in his book The Greatest Story Ever Sold, and many other commentators -- including the Italian journalists who originally rejected the forged documents -- have proven, the documents that the White House used to under gird its warning that "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" were identified TO the administration as flat out forgeries by level after level of journalists, intelligence staff, State Department employees, and so on. These documents were used to scare the heck out of us anyway, and almost four thousand young people are now dead.
Finally, I am sorry to say, there is the fact that, historically, when leaders are seeking to close down an open society, the months leading up to an election are traditionally the most unstable time -- the period most likely to see reports of a frightening purported threat "just-foiled," an apparent awful breach "just-averted," or even a dramatic actual provocation -- which requires, then, a strong hand to restore "public order." Mrs. Clinton pointed out that even though it is a "horrible prospect," sometime you have to ask "What if?"
At the conclusion of my argument about the closing down of our democracy in The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, there is a series of `What ifs?' positing various scenarios, based on the historical record about closing societies, that could realistically play out -- yes, even here in America -- in the run-up to the election. To put it mildly: You want to know and think about the history of such scenarios in advance, since one quality such tactics depend upon is the element of surprise.
Let's also compare the way this White House talks about the terror threat with the way other societies that have decades-long experience with terrorist attacks do. And let's use our common sense. Anyone who has ever lived in Israel -- a country where, since its very birth, sophisticated terrorists have been targeting the civilian population day and night -- knows that you NEVER get the equivalent of broad-anxiety-inducing alerts in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem like the "red alert" or "orange alert" system here at home. At the most, in Israel, you get practical, low-key, usable information from the state -- for example, "avoid the Machaneh Yehudah marketplace this Friday afternoon" -- no matter who is in power. Israelis, consequently, experience, on the day-to-day level, the possibility of terror attacks as a specific, real danger -- but not as a state-produced existential condition, a matrix of helpless fear. (Indeed, avoiding national fear from terror attacks is a point of pride in Israel that transcends party lines).
Nor do Israelis get our regular-as-rain triumphalist narratives in the press about this or that terrorist's creepy bio, his sinister face, or this or that thwarted, grandiose attack on this or that cherished national monument. There is not a constant struggle between the Knesset and the party in power over the declassification of intelligence, comparable to our struggle here at home. Rather, when there is something the people need to know, Mossad lets the people's leaders -- whatever party is in power -- know it. Everyone in Israel understands that terror is too serious to mess with politically -- that intelligence about attacks is too important to disclose or to conceal for political purposes -- and that Mossad is always, very quietly, at work.
Anyone who has lived in the UK during the years of regular, bloody IRA bombings has experienced similar restraint. Nations that have long been primarily intent on tracking and thwarting terrorists -- rather than, perhaps, driving policy with fear -- just don't talk about terrorism in the same way (or nearly so much). Even now -- fighting the very same "bad guys" that we are fighting -- Gordon Brown has reminded his nation and ours that "terrorism is not a cause, it is a crime."
Finally, if this administration did not have a seven-year track record of violating other major democratic principles that stand in its way, it would be easier to dismiss the need for a warning of this kind.
Is it irrational to consider the possibility of a hyped threat or even a provocation before the election? It is, at this point, irrational to refuse to do so. If this White House had no actual major record of hyping a threat -- if the U.S. had no record of inflating various fears for political ends -- and if weakening democracies worldwide had no record of manipulating terror narratives to drive certain outcomes, it would indeed be illogical -- even paranoid -- to worry about a possible hyped threat or provocation that is politically driven.
But given the current administration's record of lying to Congress, the American people and the UN about such threats; given that it used fake documents to do so; given that it has often splashed out widely-reported terror charges that then vanish or subside during actual trials (the course corrections of which are seldom as widely reported); given our own nation's history of not being immune to the temptations on the part of leaders of using fear to drive a political outcome -- is it not, rather, almost criminally naive to REFUSE even to consider the possibility of a hyped threat or provocation close to the election?
The consequences of maintaining this denial may be nothing -- or they may be very serious indeed.
It is never smart, even in a strong democracy, to declare some debate off limits, and in a weakening democracy it is catastrophic. Our refusal to look squarely at the possibility that our American president might manipulate our fears has an element of pathology to it: we are like an abused woman who wants to believe that surely this time he will do what is right -- or a child in an abusive family who can't look at the fact that Daddy might not be an ever-benign protector.
Such collective blind spots are dangerous always, but especially now. Dan Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Vital Lies (and, disclosure, my maternal uncle) points out that every group observes what he calls "The Four Attentional Rules." "In any group," he notes, "from the family, to organizations, to entire societies, there are these unstated rules that we learn tacitly about the questions that can't be asked. They are:
1: Here's what we notice
2: Here's what we call it
3: Here's what can't be noticed
4: We are at a loss to talk about it because we can't admit we see it."
Number four is just too serious to risk at a time such as this.
Let's dare to release our immature fantasies of a magically faultless American system and a magically protected election process. We have been lucky, as a nation; but sometimes continued luck depends on action.
Hillary Clinton's rivals should back down; she was the first to dare to imply what we must all directly consider.
Sometimes collective blind spots -- agreements not to look -- are not a problem; and sometimes -- as in a dramatically weakening democracy -- such blind spots can become big enough to prove self-destructive indeed.
Naomi Wolf is the author of the forthcoming The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, Chelsea Green Publishing, Sept 2007