[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
Remember when Republicans portrayed themselves as tough guys? The party of John Wayne? Hard to picture now, right? Ever since an Islamic fundamentalist tried to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, Republicans have, as Steve Benen eloquently put it, engaged in a "collective display of pants-wetting."
The naked politicization of the attempted attack has been both shameful and hypocritical. (Can you imagine what these same Republicans, from Dick Cheney to members of Congress, would have done if Democrats criticized George W. Bush and sent out fund-raising mailers after 9/11?) As angry as the GOP response should make any American, what is even more important is that the Republicans are making us less safe.
It's as if the Republicans don't understand why fanatics use terrorism (something Bush definitely didn't seem to get after 9/11). The Islamic fundamentalists who wish us harm do not have the firepower to prevail against the power of the United States. But what they can do is try and unsettle us, so that we will hurt ourselves. When al-Qaeda leadership put together the 9/11 plot, there was no danger that the 19 terrorists who hijacked the four planes would defeat the United States military. But by perpetuating the tragedy, the goal was to unsettle Americans and the U.S. government, so that we would ourselves do the damage al-Qaeda didn't have the power to inflict.
And, sadly, the Bush administration played right into the terrorists' hands. It overreacted, plunging the country into an unrelated, unnecessary, draining war in Iraq. More importantly, Bush and his cronies attacked the very aspects of the U.S. that al-Qaeda could never touch: our freedoms and democratic principals. From the Patriot Act to illegal wiretapping to torture to holding people without charge, the president took an axe to the very freedoms that he said was the reason the terrorists hated us. Osama bin Laden himself could not have better choreographed what the Bush administration did after 9/11. And look at how the rest of the decade unfolded. Bush's missteps left our military stretched and more vulnerable than it had been in more than 50 years, and our surpluses had turned to deficits, all while our reputation and ability to influence the rest of the world slipped.
So here we are, a little more than eight years after 9/11. A Nigerian terrorist manages to get some chemical explosives onto a plane, but thanks to the bravery of some passengers and the limited capability of the attacker, the terrorist was unsuccessful. And, again, the Republicans play right into the terrorists' hands, engaging in a "collective display of pants-wetting," exactly what the terrorists want us to do.
Luckily, Barack Obama is not George W. Bush. As Obama's top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, noted on Meet the Press on Sunday, charges from the likes of Cheney that Obama has not been active fighting terrorism are flat-out wrong. Obama understands that the way to beat al-Qaeda is to aggressively fight them, but also not to allow them to unsettle the United States, which is the terrorists' goal.
Clearly, after the disaster of the Bush presidency, Republicans have not paid any attention to history. But if you look at how Israel responds to terror attacks, or how the English handled IRA bombings, you can see how countries that understand the terrorists and their goals respond. No panic, keep living your life normally, but fight back with all of the power at your disposal. Somehow, Republicans seem to think that to fight back, you have to panic and surrender core American values to do so. As usual, the GOP is wrong.
As David Brooks persuasively argued in his New Year's Day column in the New York Times, there seems to be an unrealistic expectation in the United States now that human institutions will never fail. He wrote:
"Now we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved."
Sound familiar? He might as well have been describing the Republican reaction to the underwear bomber. No reliable authority would argue that the Dutch authorities would have kept the guy off the plane had Bush, John McCain or (heaven forbid) Sarah Palin been president. And yet the first reaction of Republicans was to use the foiled attack as an excuse to win political points and blame Obama (and, of course, raise money).
It comes down to the very identity of being an American. Does being an American mean something? It used to. When America fought in World War II or opposed communism during the Cold War, it wasn't just about our team winning for the sake of winning. It wasn't Cubs-Cardinals or Celtics-Lakers. As Americans, we stood for something, namely a democratic society that respected the rule of law. We were right and they were wrong. As I've noted before, when Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down that wall," he wasn't criticizing the architecture. He was saying, in effect, our system treats individuals correctly, and yours does not. We don't torture, we have open trials, and our citizens have freedom of speech and due process rights. Without the different principals, we would have been no better than our enemies.
The same holds true now. Of course we all (including Obama) want Americans to be safe from terrorist attacks, and we all want the government to do everything in its power to protect us. But we should want that done without giving up the values that make America special. Without these principals, we are no better than the terrorists. As Israel and England have shown us, you can fight and win and protect your people while holding onto your way of life. It just takes some courage and conviction, two things sorely lacking in the modern Republican party.
Where are the tough-guy Republicans now? When did fear and whining replace the gunslinger persona? If it was just hypocritical and repugnant, maybe we could just laugh at these cowards. But the Republican reaction has been to give the terrorists exactly what they want (just as Bush did after 9/11). And that's not funny at all.
It's times like these that I am very, very relieved that the president is Barack Obama and not George W. Bush. Obama has showed the courage that Bush lacked. Following the course of action urged by Republicans now (especially since they are, as Brennan showed, flat-out lying about Obama's policies) would be disastrous, handing the terrorists everything they want.