The recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., have caused Americans to reassess the country’s safety, with fear approaching levels not seen since right after 9/11: Polling shows that President Barack Obama’s approval numbers have dipped to new lows - and one poll this week shows just a third of Americans approve of the way he has handled militant groups like the Islamic State.
Fifteen years after 9/11, have we gotten any safer? Or do recent attacks show the threat is greater than ever? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the question.
JOEL MATHIS: The world is an unsafe place. President Obama isn’t perfect. But yeah, America has been safer with him in charge.
All you need to make that determination is one metric: Body count. Simply put, far fewer Americans have lost their lives to violence under Obama than under his predecessor. Some of that is luck, but much of it is a result of the choices both presidents made.
George W. Bush had the bad luck to be president when Osama bin Laden directed the 9/11 attacks on America. But Bush was dismissive of a memo - “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” - just a month before the attacks. Bin Laden and Mohamed Atta are the bad guys in that story, not Bush, but a stronger reaction might’ve saved a few lives in New York, Washington D.C., and Shanksville, Pa.
One other choice Bush made: To invade Iraq. It was a country that had not attacked us. It did not - as it turned out - possess weapons of mass destruction with which to threaten us. But the Iraq War claimed thousands of American lives, unnecessarily, and claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, with ripple effects (like the Islamic State) that haunt us to this day. Whatever else you want to say about Bush, the era over which he presided didn’t feel very safe.
Let’s be fair: Obama has certainly benefited from some of the security measures Bush put in place after 9/11. But he’s also tried to be cautious, to avoid doing dumb things that squander American lives in the service making himself, and the country he serves, seem oh-so-macho. He has resorted to diplomacy in places - like Iran - that Republicans seemed to eager to invade and squander even more lives.
That is why he has the contempt of Republicans, of course, who prefer their foreign policy loud and furious - and who, not incidentally, are getting Donald Trump as the front-runner for their party’s nomination. Does that make you feel safer? No? It’s what the GOP has to offer.
Me? I’d rather stick with a president who makes the wiser - safer - choices.
BEN BOYCHUK: Safer? Well, if you care to peruse the statistics, your odds of being attacked by a terrorist remain roughly 20 million-to-1. You have a better chance of being struck by lightning, dying in a fire or drowning in a bathtub.
But actuarial tables are of little comfort to the families of the victims of the San Bernardino attacks or to the grieving parents of the high school student who was struck and killed Tuesday by a city-owned truck in Los Angeles after the LA Unified School District shut down in response to a bogus terrorist threat.
Safer? We’ve learned over the past week that the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t look at the social media activity of foreigners applying for visas as a matter of policy. But DHS will routinely examine the Facebook and Twitter activity of American citizens.
Think about that. The gargantuan bureaucracy created to preempt terrorist threats against the country deliberately avoids looking at information that foreigners share publicly on their Facebook timelines. According to ABC News, “Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson refused in early 2014 to end the secret U.S. policy that prohibited immigration officials from reviewing the social media messages of all foreign citizens applying for U.S. visas, according to a former senior department official.”
Why in the world would they do that? Johnson reportedly feared a “civil liberties backlash” and “bad public relations” for the Obama administration.
Mind you, these are the same people who assure us that the Syrian refugees will be thoroughly vetted.
Safer? China and Russia have made Swiss cheese of federal and state government databases. Beijing hackers “compromised” (read: stole) the files of more than 22.1 million current and former federal employees, including people with top-secret security clearances. Apparently, this had been going on for years before the geniuses at the Office of Personnel Management noticed the breach. You don’t suppose the Chinese only plan to mess with their credit scores, do you?
Safer? President Obama continues to insist that climate change is the prime mover of Islamic jihadism - except he won’t actually say “Islamic jihadism” or any variation on the term.
We are probably about as safe as we ever were in a world full of uncertainty. But it’s tough to feel safe when public-relations worries trump national security.
Ben Boychuk (email@example.com) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine.