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2006-09-15,1:12 PM

The politics of fear in US elections

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy: James Madison - The fourth U.S. president, 1751-1836.

Six days before the 9/11 commemoration, President George Bush opened the fall election campaign season with a hard hitting speech on national security amid flagging public support for the war in Iraq. In a sharp rhetoric, President Bush said that Al-Qaeda and its allies were intent on global domination and creating a "radical Islamic empire" that stretches from Spain to Iraq. While comparing Bin Laden with Hitler, he said: "Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them." To send the message home, Bush mentioned Bin Laden 17 times in the 44-minute speech. Ironically, any mention of Osama bin Laden was absent from the White House report, titled "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism" released the same day.

President Bush's comments came just eight weeks before the midterm elections with the GOP control of the House and Senate hanging in the balance. Bush's approval ratings have been sagging and he has come under fire from conservative critics who have argued that his "war on terror" was too squishy, and losing impact with mainstream America.

According to Harris Interactive Poll, President Bush's approval rating is just 34%. President Bush's approval rating is 38% in a Newsweek poll. Harris Poll also indicated that if elections for Congress were held today, 45% of Americans say they would vote for the Democratic candidate and 30% would vote for the Republican. The Newsweek Poll indicates that right now 53 percent of Americans would like to see the Democrats win control of Congress, compared to just 34 percent who want the Republicans to retain control. Most Americans are angry about "something" when it comes to how the country is run, and they are more likely than in previous years to vote for a challenger this November, according to a CNN poll of Sept. 4.

Hence, in an effort to bolster sinking public opinion about the unpopular war in Iraq and other national issues, President Bush and Republican leaders see "national security" or "fear factor" as their biggest advantage over Democrats.

Three things can be expected from Bush's speech, according to a new study by three Columbia University researchers: The media will repeat the president's remarks. Public fear of terrorism will increase. And the president's poll numbers will rise. Those have been the effects of presidential pronouncements on terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks, they added.

Officials in government and law enforcement also can have an effect on the public's perception of terror risk when their statements are magnified by the media. In February 2003, for example, the percentage of people saying they were very worried about a terror attack "soon" stood at 18 percent. One month later, after the alert had been raised and lowered, it stood at 34 percent.

The official with the greatest ability to shift opinion on terrorism, the researchers found, is Bush, whose statements in the media about terrorism correlated highly with increases in the public's perception of terrorism as a major national problem -- and with increases in his approval ratings.

At the beginning of July 2002, for example, approval of the president's handling of terrorism was around 79 percent. After television coverage of one statement by Bush and seven public statements by administration officials about the terrorist threat, the president's rating rose to 83 percent.

In June 2004, approval for the president's handling of terrorism had fallen to 50 percent. One month later, after an increase in television coverage of Bush's comments on terrorism, that number had risen to 57 percent.

Larry Beutler, director of the National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism in Palo Alto argues that there are findings suggesting that the administration's use of the alert system increased inordinately before the election and each time it did, Bush's numbers went up about 5 percent.

The Columbia University research is seen a "damning indictment of the media's bloodlust." Matthew T. Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. says: "When you have media organs viewing fear-mongering as a payday, senior politicians seeing fear-mongering as sound political strategy, and terrorists considering fear-mongering as a victory unto itself, where are citizens expected to find a voice of reason?"

However, Yaeli Bloch-Elkon, one of the researchers pointed out: "This public panic benefits the terrorists whose work is made easier by an overactive government response that magnifies their efforts. In an odd way this puts the government and the terrorists in league with one another," he said. "The main loser, alas, is the terrified public."

"The real new thing here is the mere threat, heavily mass mediated, achieves at least part of what actual terrorism achieves," Nacos said. "(Terrorists) want to intimidate, they want to spread fear and anxiety, and they want to take influence through the public on government officials."

While the President warns of enduring terror threat, the Democrats are playing up the fear-factor albeit in a different way.

A group of top Democrats held a press conference just before Mr. Bush's speech to release a report that they said showed the president's approach to terrorism to be a failure. "Under the Bush administration and this Republican Congress, America is less safe, facing greater threats, and unprepared for the dangerous world in which we live,'' said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader in the Senate. "This new report is a stunning indictment of Bush foreign policy, and it makes a clear case for the new direction we need to keep America safe."

Sharon Burke, director of the Third Way National Security Project that compiled the report, said that the study showed that the number of al Qaeda members had grown from about 20,000 in 2001 to about 50,000 today, and that terrorist attacks worldwide were up sharply. The number and power of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan are also on the rise, she said, while the strength and readiness of the American military have been drained by the war in Iraq . "The numbers show that the president's strategy is not working,'' she said.

The one point on which both reports agreed is the growth of small terrorist cells that operate outside of centralized organizations like al Qaeda.

A new counterterrorism strategy released on Sept. 5 by the White House compares the fight to the long struggle against Communism during the decades-long Cold War, and shifting the focus from Al Qaeda to decentralized networks of extremists. It describes al-Qaeda as a significantly degraded organization, but outlines potent threats from smaller networks and individuals motivated by al-Qaeda ideology, a lack of freedom and "twisted" propaganda about U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism reflects the intelligence community's latest analysis of the evolving nature of the threats from widely dispersed "Islamic extremists" who are often isolated and linked by little more than the Internet. It describes President Bush's "freedom agenda" of promoting democracy as the leading long-term weapon against them.

The document describes the influence of U.S. policy in the Middle East as minimal, portraying the Iraq war and the renewed Arab-Israeli strife as sources of deceptive propaganda for terrorist ideologues. Terrorism, it says, "is not simply a result of hostility to U.S. policy in Iraq . . . Israeli-Palestinian issues . . . [or] our efforts to prevent terror attacks."

"The terrorism we confront today" springs from several sources, including an "ideology that justifies murder" and that blames "perceived injustices from the recent or sometimes distant past," the strategy says. That ideology, it says, preys upon populations that "see no legitimate way to promote change in their own country" and whose "information about the world is contaminated by falsehoods and corrupted by conspiracy theories."

Amid the stepped up rhetoric on national security, a Bush Administration proposed legislation was introduced in the congress on September 7 aimed at protecting the officials authorizing cruel, inhuman treatment retrospectively. The new legislation will apply to any conduct by any U.S. personnel, whether committed before or after the law is enacted.

Under the proposed law, the administration could potentially subject any non-citizen accused of supporting terrorist activity, anywhere in the world, to the second-class justice system of military commissions. This is because there is no requirement that those brought before the proposed military commission have any relationship to an actual armed conflict as commonly understood. According to the Human Rights Watch, under this legislation, even the proverbial old lady in Switzerland who gave money to a charitable arm of a terrorist organization could be declared an "unlawful enemy combatant," placed in military custody, and tried by a military commission for providing "material support to terrorism."

The Bush administration is in a hurry to pass this legislation before the November elections in which the Republicans fear losing control of the congress.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Executive Editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective: www.amperspective.com

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