Betting on the Terrorists

National Republicans are making a morbid political bet. It goes something like this: If there’s a deadly terrorist incident in the next three years, we win – big.

Their almost uniformly hysterical response to President Obama’s decision to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other 9/11 terrorists to New York to face charges in federal court illustrates this vividly.

John Boehner, the top Republican in the House, called it “further evidence that the White House is reverting to a dangerous pre-9/11 mentality.” Rudy Giuliani went on national television to warn that residents of New York – his own city – would be at increased risk because of it. And John Shadegg, a leader of the most conservative faction of House Republicans, actually wondered how Mayor Bloomberg (who has endorsed Obama’s move) will feel “when it’s your daughter that’s kidnapped at school by a terrorist?”

The G.O.P.’s heat on this issue stems partly from the Islamophobia that has infected the right. This past week alone has brought us Bill O’Reilly noting that “we can’t kill all the Muslims” and Don Manzullo, a Republican congressman from Illinois, calling Islam “a savage religion.”

But it’s impossible to ignore the crude, cynical political calculations that are also at work.

On the issue of the Mohammed trial, the G.O.P. has identified an issue that – at least in the short term – is a political winner. It’s only too easy to stoke public fear an anxiety about the 46 million things (real or imagined) that could go wrong by bringing five deadly terrorists to the largest city in America for a high-profile trial.

Already, polls show that blue state New Yorkers are split on the matter, with about as many opposing the trial plan as support it. Imagine what the numbers are in swing and red states. And imagine what they’ll be – in New York and around the country – after a few weeks of Shadegg-esque fear-mongering.

There are, of course, rational answers to all of the right’s objections about the trial. Like the fact that terrorists have been tried in federal courts many times before and have been convicted at a rate of about 90 percent. Or that a terrorist incident has never coincided with one of these trials. Or that New York itself has actually played host to terrorist trials before. Or that even Republicans – like Giuliani – celebrated the 2006 federal conviction of the so-called 20th hijacker as a tribute to the American system of justice. And on and on.

But rational thought isn’t always a strong weapon when matched against fear. So the G.O.P. is well-positioned to score points with its blistering attacks on the trial issue – at least in the short term.

Which brings us back to the idea that Republicans are making a morbid bet. Because the short-term efficacy of their terror trial fear campaign will cease to work – and in fact will backfire – if the trials end up proceeding in orderly fashion and producing guilty verdicts. Then, the administration will be free to celebrate the triumph of the American system – and to remind the public, over and over, how afraid Republicans were to place their faith in our system. There won’t be much for the G.O.P. to say in response.

But Republicans will have plenty to say if some sort of terrorist incident coincides with the trial – or if one occurs at any other point in Obama’s first term. Then, they’ll be the ones saying they told us so.

In that sense, their terror trial hysteria is merely an extension of a game plan Republicans have been following since Obama was inaugurated. They have missed no opportunity to portray any foreign policy or national security decision he makes – even over something as trivial as whether to bow when greeting the Japanese emperor – as a sign that he’s “soft” on terrorism and security.

So we have Dick Cheney and John McCain sounding the alarm over Obama’s “dithering” on Afghanistan, with right-wing media outlets piling on (even as sober, rational voices like Colin Powell insist that Obama should take his time and not be rushed into making a decision on troop levels). We have Karl Rove (and countless others) accusing Obama of being on an “apology tour” when he visits other world leaders. And we have the present craziness over terror trials.

In ways big and small, the G.O.P.’s game is to paint Obama as weak and soft. The long-term calculation is undeniable: the more noise Republicans make now about Obama’s supposed “softness” on terrorism, the more it will resonate with voters in the event that there is another major terrorist incident during his presidency.

To be fair, there are some conservatives who aren’t interested in playing this game (just as there are some Democrats who have joined in). “The scaremongering about these issues should stop,” conservative leaders David Keene, Grover Norquist and Bob Barr said in a statement this week. 

Maybe Keene, Norquist and Barr (the Libertarian nominee for president last year) are genuinely offended by what’s going on. But from a political standpoint, they probably also recognize it as a bad bet – one that leaves Obama trying to keep the country safe and his political opponents hoping that he can’t.