Thursday, October 21, 2004

Chiller Theater

The New York Times
October 21, 2004

Chiller Theater

As the election draws near, the Bush campaign grows ever more irresponsible in its effort to scare Americans into believing that voting for John Kerry will bring on another terrorist attack. In Ohio on Tuesday, Vice President Dick Cheney said Mr. Kerry was incapable of understanding, much less acting on, the specter of terrorists' creeping into our cities with nuclear bombs "to threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans." Attorney General John Ashcroft was back in Washington, meanwhile, suggesting that God had spared America from an attack since 9/11 because President Bush's team was assisting "the hand of Providence."

Politicians like to tell scary tales about their opponents; the Republicans have been complaining that Mr. Kerry keeps accusing Mr. Bush of secretly planning to reinstate the draft. But what the Bush campaign is doing is far more serious and can't be dismissed as a particularly ridiculous bit of political theater. The Republicans' habit of suggesting that a vote for Mr. Kerry is a vote for the terrorists - a notion that drew an embarrassing endorsement from President Vladimir Putin this week - is a reminder of the reckless way this administration has squandered the public trust on public safety.

Mr. Ashcroft and Tom Ridge, the secretary of Homeland Security, have turned the business of keeping Americans informed about the threat of terrorism into a politically scripted series of color-coded scare sessions. And Mr. Cheney is even more discredited. The vice president hyped the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction long after it had been debunked within the government. He still draws a fictional link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and he was the first major figure in Mr. Bush's campaign to turn the fearmongering about Mr. Kerry into a campaign staple.

There is a real danger in having leaders so lacking in credibility on this vital issue: if they ever deliver a real warning, it could be discounted by a large segment of the population, and that could really put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.

We don't need Mr. Cheney to tell us what everyone, including Mr. Kerry, already knows: the threat of terrorism is real, including from nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, and defending against it is the government's gravest responsibility.

Part of that responsibility lies in taking action. Although Mr. Bush is running largely on this issue, his administration has not provided enough money for important security programs like safeguarding the nation's ports. And it has squandered resources on half-baked cases against people who posed no real threat and on a war in Iraq that has actually increased the risk of terrorism.

But another big part of the government's role is to maintain the highest possible level of credibility. Turning our fears about a terrorist attack into just another campaign commercial undermines this trust and make us all more vulnerable.