When the presidential debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore were held in October 2000, the 9/11 attacks were less than a year away. Guess how many times “al Qaeda” or “Osama bin Laden” came up in those debates? Not once.
There was a single mention of “terrorism” in one of the debates, but it was made in passing. One word did stand out from those verbal jousts, but it had nothing to do with any threat from abroad. The word was “lockbox.” Hard as it may be to imagine now, the candidates spent more time locking horns over what they planned to do to reform Social Security and Medicare than how they’d bolster America’s security.
Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with covering important domestic issues. The economy, for example, frequently demands our attention, and seldom more urgently than it does at this moment. And no one expects candidates to have a crystal ball. Even the best prepared among us can get blind-sided by a crisis.
But crises rarely materialize out of nowhere. The signs of a gathering storm can be detected if one is paying attention.
The 9/11 attacks, for example, surprised us all, but they were hardly a bolt out of the blue. “In August 1998, Osama bin Laden’s Afghanistan-based terrorist network bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania,” Middle East expert James Phillips wrote in a paper published by The Heritage Foundation in July 2000. “Yet Afghanistan has still not received the high-level attention that it deserves as the world's leading exporter of terrorism, Islamic revolution, and opium.”
We’d also seen the USS Cole bombed while it lay in port in Yemen. And let’s not forget the first bombing attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
Phillips and other experts had been sounding the alarm repeatedly by the time the 2000 election came around. Yet no debate moderator asked Gov. Bush and Vice President Gore what steps they would take, if elected, to help diffuse this threat.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that the president is also the commander-in-chief. Maybe it’s human nature to want to forget. After all, who wants to dwell on the fact that it’s dangerous out there, especially when we have enough problems at home?
But when you consider our position in the world, and what it takes to make sure that we remain secure, we see the need to be prepared -- not just in a general sense, but to anticipate specific threats and figure out how to deal with them.