Terror nuisance

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(Host) Commentator Barrie Dunsmore notes that while tonight’s presidential debate was supposed to be about domestic issues, it’s likely the candidates will want to discuss what Senator Kerry meant when he supposedly called terrorism a nuisance.

(Dunsmore) The New York Times Magazine had John Kerry on its cover last Sunday with a lengthy story about his attempts to define his perception of the war on terrorism and how to fight it. As part of a nuanced analysis of how Kerry differed from President Bush on this issue, the interviewer asked Kerry what it would take for Americans to feel safe again. His response, “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.”

Kerry went on to say that just as society was never going to end problems like prostitution, illegal gambling and organized crime, such things should be fought and controlled until they were no longer threatening the fabric of people’s lives. Within the context of a discussion about how you deal with an international network of Islamic extremists when the military option is actually quite limited, such thoughts are not particularly outlandish.

But in the heat of this presidential campaign, Kerry’s words have added fuel to the fires of his critics and opponents. The Sunday Times magazine is printed and in distributor’s hands by Thursdays. So it was no surprise that by Sunday night, the Bush campaign’s attack machine was running television ads in key states mocking Kerry’s words. The president has now picked up the theme that Kerry thinks terrorism is a nuisance – no more serious than prostitution or illegal gambling. That’s not what Kerry actually said and clearly not what he meant. But once
again, the senator has been caught out by not being able to explain himself in slogans and sound bites.

It is a reality of American politics that -especially in wartime – simple slogans work. In 1952, at the height of the Korean War, candidate Eisenhower said “I will go to Korea.” In 1968, as the Vietnam War raged, candidate Nixon promised that he had a “secret plan” to end the war. Both were elected. Ike did end the Korean War but Nixon and his successor stayed in Vietnam for another seven years.

For those who take the trouble to read the whole of the Sunday Times article it will be clear that Kerry is an internationalist. He believes the way to resolve problems like Iraq and the war on terror is through strong alliances – as opposed to the lone gun-fighter approach of Bush. As much as that loner metaphor plays to America’s image of itself, it might be recalled that in High Noon, Gary Cooper’s marshal wanted help from the townsfolk – he just couldn’t get it. In the gunfight at O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp had his brothers and Doc Holliday when he faced down the Clanton gang. And as every Texan knows, even the Lone Ranger needed Tonto.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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