The initial hours of this year's edition of Fox's blockbuster series "24" focused on a group of "Islamic militants" who detonate a small nuclear bomb in Southern California.
Hour four ended with a mushroom cloud rising over Los Angeles.
The suspenseful question that will keep millions of Americans faithfully watching this program until the very last seconds of the 24th hour is: Will these terrorists succeed in exploding four more nukes known to be in their possession?
The most remarkable thing about this storyline is what it did not do: Spark popular incredulity about its main proposition.
Viewers of "24" must suspend their disbelief for many elements of the show, which are implausible if not fantastical. They need not disbelieve the main question.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, it is a given that Americans fear that Islamist terrorists will smuggle a weapon of mass destruction into the United States, or devise some other means to again murder thousands here. Our federal elected officials seem to universally acknowledge that this is a justified fear.
This fear, in fact, will be the most powerful driving force behind the politics of 2008. Finding ways to deal with the threat that gives rise to this fear is and ought to be the highest priority of U.S. national security policy.
Simply put, the most important question for U.S. leaders is: What set of policies is most likely to prevent Islamist terrorists from arriving in Los Angeles, or any other American community, with the capacity to kill thousands of people?
Ultimately, the attitude of voters toward any national security initiative presented as part of the "war on terror" will be determined by how they answer their own version of this question: Does this policy increase or decrease the chances Islamist terrorists will kill me, my family or my neighbors?
If they believe it decreases the chances, they are likely to be for it and willing to bear its costs to the degree they think it is working to keep them safe. If they believe it increases the chances, they won't be for it.
In effect, Americans want their leaders to pursue a Terrorist Defense Initiative aimed at deploying the most effective possible National Terrorist Defense. They want to keep the terrorists out of our country. They want to keep them from killing our people. They will not long stay committed to any crusade aimed at changing the world, but they will never give up on defending their own country, towns and families.
Popular sentiment toward President Bush's anti-terrorism policies tracks this pattern.
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