The Irresistible Urge to Overreact to Prove Your Seriousness

Okay, it was Paris, at Charles De Gaulle International Airport (CDG – or Charlie to some, or Chuck). It was the morning of December 23, 2001 – standing in line to check the bags full of Christmas presents for the non-stop Air France flight up over the north pole and back home to Los Angeles. It was a nice morning, scattered clouds and cold sunshine, but something was wrong. The lines were too long and hardly moving. Time to strike up a conversation with the nice young man in his goofy Air France customer service blazer. He explained. A few hours earlier American Airlines had had a problem with its Flight 63 out of Paris, headed for Miami – it was that guy we now know as the Shoe Bomber, Richard Reid. Reid tried to blow up the plane. It didn’t work.

It seems Reid was an incompetent goofball – even if a dangerous one – but damn, they’d be disassembling and checking everything. The Air France guy offered that Gallic existential shrug. What are you going to do? So we chatted about Los Angeles and Euro Disney and cars and this and that, in something between French and English, and finally someone poked around in the suitcase and that was that. The young fellow said he’d look me up in Hollywood if he ever got out here.

And that was that – it was up through the cloud deck over the Channel, a nice glimpse of Glasgow from six miles up, then Reykjavik, then the winter sun went down over the north of Greenland, rose again over the back end of Canada, and it was down the coast to LAX, through customs and catching a cab home. Nothing happened. Nothing usually happens, in spite of what you see on television. Yes, sharks attack people, and children are abducted by nasty people, and you should take reasonable precautions. But the news folks are reporting on rare, exceptional circumstances. That’s what they do. And they make the exceptional sound like the new norm. It’s good for the ratings. But the chances of someone trying to blow your plane out of the sky with amazing exploding sneakers are well beyond remote – and more remote now that this one guy gave it a go.

In fact it took eight years before anyone tried anything like it again, this Christmas Day. And as the Associated Press reports, security reviews are underway after this year’s incompetent airliner attack:

Investigators piecing together a brazen attempt to bring down a trans-Atlantic airliner said Sunday the suspect tucked a small bag holding his deadly concoction on his body, using an explosive that would have been easily detected with the right airport equipment.

Okay, someone figured out that no one was scanning for the compound involved – getting the right equipment in place for that isn’t complete – and gave it another go. So the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit was in real danger, from another incompetent goofball. But no one mentions how rare an event this was, and of course everyone is in a panic imagining what would have happened had he not been so inept. The exceptional becomes the new norm.

Of course that would mean it would happen on the same flight from Amsterdam to Detroit just two days later.

But see No Danger on Sunday Flight – Just an Ill Passenger. Another young fellow for Nigeria, spending far too long in the rest room, had everyone in a panic – divert the flight, park the plane in some remote corner of the airport and comb it for anything dangerous. But it seems he was airsick. Oops.

And see TSA: Two Passengers Detained After Flight To Phoenix – they were speaking loudly in a foreign language, and one of them was watching an instructional video on his laptop, on how to blow up airplanes and buildings and this and that. But it was just another Hollywood disaster movie and they were just tourists returning from Disneyworld. Oops.

And there is also this item – Police: Ivana Trump Becomes Angry, Taken Off Plane. Heck, anyone could be a terrorist, except that the ex-wife of Donald Trump, and three other guys, who was just pissed off at all the loud children running in the aisles and demanded something be done, for her serenity, and when nothing much was done, ended up screaming and swearing like a sailor and had to be removed. She’s stuck in Palm Beach now. Maybe that one doesn’t count.

But overreacting proves you’re taking a threat seriously. That’s the rule on cable news, and of course the rule with politicians. This year’s Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the privileged young son of a Nigerian banker, says he trained in Yemen with al-Qaeda there, where he got his instructions, and his faulty equipment. The Yemen government says they have no record of him ever being there, but no matter. Anyone could see what was coming next, and it came from the man, who after he single-handedly stripped the Senate healthcare reform bill of anything he didn’t like at the moment, considers himself the most powerful man in America. That would be Joe Lieberman:

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, (I-Conn) a renowned hawk and one of the foremost champions of the invasion of Iraq, warned on Sunday that the United States faced “danger” unless it preemptively acts to curb the rise of terrorism in Yemen.

“Somebody in our government said to me in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, Iraq was yesterday’s war. Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war,” Lieberman said, during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday”. “That’s the danger we face.”

Spencer Ackerman translates:

So unless we make it today’s war, it’ll be tomorrow’s war. And presumably next Thursday’s Surge when everything goes wrong and needs to be magically rescued. How can you have a surge without an invasion? It’s time to think seriously, people!

And Ackerman has at Lieberman:

Is it a mistake to respond to this with more than ridicule? Maybe, but if not: it’s a ludicrously blithe and cost-free assertion to say that we need to take preemptive action in Yemen. What the fuck does Joe Lieberman know about Yemen? What does anyone in the Washington policy community know about Yemen? Fucking nothing except that (a) there is an apparently growing al-Qaeda presence there; Abdulmutallab told investigators that he got hooked up with his botched explosive there; the USS Cole was bombed there; there’s an important port there, and… that’s it. What are the local dynamics in Yemen that a military strike would impact? What would the goals of such strikes be? What are the underlying political effects that have allowed al-Qaeda to establish itself in Yemen? What measures short of war might be better targeted to addressing those conditions? These are just a few of the many prior questions that have to be answered before such a thing is considered. Instead, Lieberman just gets to go on Fox and monger away, unchallenged. Such is life.

Ackerman suggests that a saner set of policy options might be considered for Yemen, as in this recent paper by Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine:

Since 2001, U.S. policy toward Yemen has focused mostly – and, at times, overwhelmingly – on counterterrorism. This is understandable, but problematic. When the perceived terrorist threat in Yemen retreated in 2003, U.S. policymakers lost interest, abandoning or curtailing development projects in the country. Given the threat posed not just by terrorism in Yemen, but also by the potential for nationwide instability, U.S. policy should move toward a broader and more sustainable relationship, with a strong focus on development. Such a relationship would include a counterterrorism component, but not be defined by counterterrorism alone. American officials should make clear, both publicly and privately, that the United States seeks an enduring relationship with the people of Yemen. In so doing, they should note that the United States does not merely view Yemen as a counterterrorism problem, but rather as a country with which it seeks a multifaceted and enduring relationship that includes economic development, improved government, and domestic stability.

Yeah, but that’s boring, when we can just bomb them, then send in the troops and take over the place, until they have a good government one day. And bombing proves you’re serious, of course, which really sets off Ackerman:

I’m really getting tired of the mainstream media descriptions of progressives being pissed off by Lieberman divorced from the reasons why the dude gets my goat. There are lots of assholes and conservatives in politics, and life is unfair, etc. I get all that. What I don’t accept is that people in power should get to be blithe and flippant with other people’s lives at stake, whether through war or through health care; and especially if they portray themselves as arbiters of seriousness. The only people being petulant are those who think the anti-Lieberman crowd is petulant.

And Simon Tisdall points out that we are not exactly ignoring Yemen:

Despite their Af-Pak focus, the US and allies such as Britain have not ignored the Yemen threat. In September, John Brennan, the White House counter-terrorism chief, travelled to Sana’a, and in an unusually strong statement, Barack Obama declared the security of Yemen to be “vital for the security of the United States”.

Since then, Washington has provided unspecified assistance to Yemeni and Saudi crackdowns on jihadi bases and Iranian-backed Shi’a rebels, amid unconfirmed reports that US Special Forces are in the country.

Two air strikes on al-Qaida strongholds in Yemen, the latest on Christmas Eve, reportedly killed up to 60 militants. It remains unclear whether these unusual operations were influenced by knowledge of a plot to blow up a US airliner.

But of course Lieberman would say that’s not real war, just fooling around. Where are the shock and awe carpet bombing and the invasion and occupation? Lieberman would say he’s serious, and Obama isn’t.

But the Matthew Yglesias has an interesting post titled Onward to Yemen! Yglesias notes that Glenn Greenwald had an actual Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen on the Christmas Eve edition of his podcast discussing this, and adds this:

The good news is that while progressives basically need Joe Lieberman’s vote in the Senate to pass domestic legislation, thus giving him a ton of leverage over what happens, nobody needs to listen to him about Yemen. The balance of risks, it seems to me, is neither that we’re just going to ignore the al-Qaeda movement there nor that we’re going to invade. Rather the risk is that, as Johnsen says, we’ll have too many airstrikes without “the proper groundwork to undermine al-Qaeda to the degree that these attacks would be seen as a good thing by the Yemeni population.”

Nobody likes to see American airstrikes happening inside their country. But if the political context is right, people can see it as the lesser of two evils. If the context isn’t right, that can build support for al-Qaeda faster than it kills terrorists.

So he thinks a Lieberman-style bombs-away mentality isn’t going to help much at all. But that doesn’t account for everyone saying look, Joe wants all-out war, and that’s a massive overreaction, so he must be a very serious person, and maybe the only serious person. It’s hard to fight that.

And then there is this:

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) said Sunday that it is fair to blame the Obama administration for the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit on Christmas Day.

Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Select Intelligence Committee said that the administration has not taken the threat of terrorist threats on the U.S. seriously.

Asked by Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace if it is fair to blame the Obama administration for the attacks, the Michigan Republican replied “Yeah, I think it really is.”

Steve Benen comments:

Not quite 48 hours after a Nigerian man – who got a visa to enter the United States from the Bush administration – unsuccessfully tried to kill Americans, Pete Hoekstra, one of Congress’ more offensive buffoons, is going on national television to blame the Obama administration.

I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but this is nauseating.

To rationalize his insane criticism, Hoekstra said he felt comfortable blaming the administration for an attack that didn’t occur because, “The Obama administration came in and said we’re not going to use the word terrorism anymore, we’re going to call it man-made disasters, trying to, I think, downplay the threat from terrorism.”

By any reasonable measure, this is breathtakingly stupid. Putting aside the fact that Hoekstra, as a factual matter, isn’t even close to reality – the White House uses the word “terrorism” all the time, whether Hoekstra keeps up on current events or not – the argument itself is ludicrous.

Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up an airplane based on Obama administration rhetoric? Is that really the line the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee wants to share with a national television audience?

Well, yes it is. Stop using that one word – even if no one stopped using that word – and all hell breaks loose. That is the argument. And there are all those right-wing primary voters in advance of his gubernatorial campaign. Benen may think that Hoekstra’s attacks against the president are cheap and disgusting. But he has his reasons. They are the same as Lieberman’s. Overreacting proves that you’re serious.

But Benen points to this from Matthew Yglesias – our efforts against these folks are proceeding as they should:

Al-Qaeda’s ideological support appears to be on the wane. The logistical capabilities displayed by things like this attempted airplane explosion are unimpressive. Military campaigns are underway against their hideouts in Yemen and Pakistan. Things are basically going fine.

But you don’t get points for that. It’s not serious, only effective.

On the other hand, at the Foreign Policy site, Marc Lynch looks at how the Christmas terrorist attack is playing in the Arab press:

The Arab media’s indifference to the story speaks to a vitally important trend. Al-Qaeda’s attempted acts of terrorism simply no longer carry the kind of persuasive political force with mass Arab or Muslim publics which they may have commanded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Even as the microscopically small radicalized and mobilized base continues to plot and even to thrive in its isolated pockets, it has largely lost its ability to break out into mainstream public appeal. I doubt this would have been any different even had the plot been successful – more attention and coverage, to be sure, but not sympathy or translation into political support. It is just too far gone to resonate with Arab or Muslim publics at this point.

Just as many of us feel about Lieberman and his crowd, so the Arab world may be beginning to feel about al-Qaeda. Who needs this apocalyptic kill-them-all crap? Yeah, yeah – apocalyptic kill-them-all talk proves that you’re very, very, very serious, and that no one else is. Go peddle it elsewhere.

Things seem to have changed, in a major way. In fact, Marc Ambinder noted that there seems to be a deliberate White House strategy underway:

Here’s the theory: a two-bit mook is sent by Al Qaeda to do a dastardly deed. He winds up neutering himself. Literally.

Authorities respond appropriately; the President (as this president is wont to do) presides over the federal response. His senior aides speak for him, letting reporters know that he’s videoconferencing regularly, that he’s ordering a review of terrorist watch lists, that he’s discoursing with his Secretary of Homeland Security.

But an in-person Obama statement isn’t needed; indeed, a message expressing command, control, outrage and anger might elevate the importance of the deed, would generate panic – because Obama usually DOESN’T talk about the specifics of cases like this, and so him deciding to do so would cue the American people to respond in a way that exacerbates the situation.

So it comes down to this:

Let the authorities do their work. Don’t presume; don’t panic the country; don’t chest-thump, prejudge, interfere, politicize (in an international sense), don’t give Al Qaeda (or whomever) a symbolic victory; resist the urge to open the old playbook and run a familiar play.

Sure, the serious people will be outraged, but Steve Benen senses what’s up:

President Obama has remained largely scarce. Indeed, yesterday, the president went golfing. …

In the Bush/Cheney era, we know officials read from a far different script. Incidents like these became opportunities to exploit. Top officials – Bush, Cheney, Rice, Ashcroft, Ridge – would fan out and start hitting the talking points. There’d be talk about invading Yemen. Maybe the Bush gang would get a bump in the polls, maybe Democrats and administration critics would hold their fire for a few days. If they didn’t, the White House could take comfort in knowing that critics would be accused of “aiding and abetting” terrorists by attacking the Commander in Chief in the wake of a crisis.

Obama and his team obviously prefer a far more mature, strategic approach. It’s about projecting a sense of calm and control. It’s about choosing not to elevate some lunatic thug who set himself on fire.

And Benen notes this has been the pattern throughout the year:

The Obama administration has taken out Saleh al-Somali, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, and Baitullah Mehsud, while taking suspected terrorists Najibullah Zazi, Talib Islam, and Hosam Maher Husein Smadi into custody before they could launch potential attacks.

In each case, there were no high-profile press conferences, no public chest-thumping, no desire to politicize the counter-terrorism successes. Indeed, most of the country probably never heard a word about any of these developments.

Sure, you don’t get to scream that you’re serious and no one else is. No one gives you points for being competent and effective. Karl Rove would say you’re being stupid, passing up the perfect opportunity to paint your opponents into a corner and secure power for yourself and your party, permanently. That’s what Rove did – he established a permanent Republican majority. Or that was the plan.

Why didn’t that work? Maybe people like those they elect actually to be competent and effective. Saying that the sky is falling, or at least the airplane, and telling everyone to be scared to death and prepare for war, worked for a time. And it still works with the Republican base.

But people figure it out eventually. The reality sinks in. Nothing usually happens, in spite of what you see on television. Yes, sharks attack people, and children are abducted by nasty people, and terrorists try this and that. Of course you should take reasonable precautions. But the exceptional is not really the new norm, or it doesn’t have to be if you just keep calm and quietly deal with the problem.

Heck, people may come to like that – competent and effective action with no drama.

Or maybe not – maybe we like being frightened, and love our Drama Queen traditional politicians who frighten us. What’s life without the emotional rollercoaster of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it worries, other than safe and long? Obama seems to want to make government boring. Will we let him? Or will we continue to say he’s just not serious?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Obama Boring, Obama Calm and Steady, Obama Too Cool, Obama: What Works, Overreacting to Threats and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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