David Frum September 28th, 2004 at 12:00 am
In the basement of my house in Washington, D.C., is a stockpile of batteries, bottles of water, dried foods and so on. We readied the stockpile a little over three years ago, when we, like most Washingtonians, expected another terrorist attack at any moment.
Since then, the capital city has been hit by anthrax and the Washington sniper — but not by mass-casualty terrorism. And my family, again like most Washingtonians, began gradually to relax. The batteries grew old; the water bottles got dusty.
Now, suddenly, the city is worrying again. Over the past year, al-Qaeda has discovered that cunningly timed terror can be used as a political weapon against democratic leaders.
The March 11 terror attacks in Madrid toppled a conservative terror-fighting government in Spain.
Terror attacks in southeast Asia have given ammunition to critics of Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who faces the voters on Oct. 9. Senator John Kerry’s sister Diane boldly intervened in the Australian election in mid-September, telling The Australian newspaper: “We are endangering the Australians now by this wanton disregard for international law and multilateral channels.”
The terrorist kidnapping — and threatened decapitation — of British engineer Kenneth Bigley has energized anti-Blair dissidents in the British Labour party, which held its annual conference just this past weekend.
But the grand prize in world politics is the U.S. presidential election. Will al-Qaeda — or some other terror group — attempt to influence the outcome through violence?
The Kerry camp sputters with outrage at the very question. To suggest that al-Qaeda might want to defeat George Bush is to imply that al-Qaeda would prefer John Kerry — and that’s one foreign endorsement that Kerry would rather not have. (Bad enough that he has already received Kim Jong Il’s: Since March, Kerry’s speeches have been lavishly praised and rebroadcast on Radio Pyongyang — as if the poor people of North Korea had not suffered enough.)
The Kerry camp has a point. It’s doubtful that the murderers of al-Qaeda prefer one infidel leader to another, or even that they have a clear idea of the policy differences between the two men. But you don’t have to believe that al-Qaeda favors Kerry to understand that it would dearly love to force Bush from power. A terror attack on the United States that upended a U.S. election would display al-Qaeda’s reach and power more vividly than any terrorist action since 9/11 itself.
And certainly there are terror groups that have good reason to prefer Kerry to Bush. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has declared that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be absolutely unacceptable to the Bush administration. John Kerry and his running-mate John Edwards have both stated their willingness to negotiate the issue.
So Iran has a powerful motive to favour Kerry over Bush — and Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. The Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah is an operating subsidiary of the Iranian government. Hezbollah has already proven its ability to strike U.S. forces: It organized the attack on the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, an attack that killed 19 American service personnel. Hezbollah has proven too that its reach can extend across the world: Hezbollah attacked the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the city’s Jewish community center in 1994. The two atrocities together killed 116 people, the worst international terror attack in the Western Hemisphere until 9/11.
Do U.S. authorities fear a terrorist attempt in the next five weeks? Security has certainly stiffened in Washington. Cordons now surround Capitol Hill: Every vehicle approaching within half a dozen blocks of Congress is halted and examined before it can pass. In New York, the police are heavily visible near the bridges and tunnels that the blind sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman plotted to target in 1993.
In the topsy-turvy world of modern terrorism, the extra security is a good sign: Mass-casualty terrorism is a difficult business for the terrorist to execute. If the defenders can raise the odds against the terrorist at even a few critical chokepoints, the already considerable difficulties facing him rise to the insurmountable.
Here’s the great imponderable question: If anything does happen, will it favour Bush or Kerry? My guess, based only on instinct, is: Kerry. Bush claims to have made the country safer since 9/11. That claim may account for Bush’s surging support among women voters. Yesterday’s Washington Post/ABC poll is only the latest to show Bush running ahead of Kerry among women. Bush’s claim, however, depends on continued counter-terrorist success every minute of every hour of every day from here to the election.
Well, so far so good. We Washingtonians continue to commute downtown, eat in restaurants, ride on trains, fly on planes. Still, I know this: I’m buying new batteries and fresh water for my emergency cooler.