Keith Olbermann is no stranger to cynicism, but he reached a new low this month when he described the hit television show 24 as the type of “fear tactic” “beloved” by the Bush administration, an exercise in “naked brainwashing,” and a “program-length commercial for one political party.” It seems Olbermann objects to 24’s recent season premiere in which several terrorist acts, including suicide bombings and the detonation of a nuclear weapon, transpired; Olbermann is worried because the show depicts such activity “not in places where these things have already happened, but in a country called the United States of America.”
Unfortunately, as we learned on September 11, “these things” have already happened in America. Still that doesn’t stop Olbermann from claiming that the threat of terrorism is an over-hyped phenomenon invented by the Bush administration—with help, of course, from the producers of 24. But my concern is not ultimately with what Olbermann thinks about 24 or Islamic radicalism, but with whether the American people share his cynicism about, and denial of, the threat we face.
I’m concerned because I fear too many Americans think too lightly of Islamic radicalism and the devastating impact it could have on the future of our country. How else can we explain a recent Fox News Poll that found 34 percent of Democrats, 19 percent of Independents, and 11 percent of Republicans do not “personally want” President Bush’s new Iraq plan to succeed? I attribute this startling revelation to the belief, espoused by Olbermann and others, that the threat of terrorism is exaggerated, that it is somehow “Bush’s war,” and that therefore developments in Iraq (and other fronts in the broader war on Islamic radicalism) have no impact on our national security, our freedoms, our values, or the future of our country.
To combat this trend we need to clarify the basic truths about the threat. To begin with, I’d say that television depictions of the evil plots of our enemies is a public service, and not a “fear tactic.” In addition, I offer the following three basic truths about the threat of Islamic radicalism. My hope is that every American citizen—Republican and Democrat—will remain, or in some cases become, mindful of such things as we speed toward 2008.
The threat is real. The stated goal of al Qaeda and other Islamic radical groups is to establish, by force, a worldwide caliphate – a united Muslim autocracy. They intend to accomplish this goal by killing infidels (non-Muslims) and enforcing Islamic Sharia law on a global scale.
The existence of the United States as a free, pluralistic, and democratic nation is anathema to Islamists. The leaders of this movement have said repeatedly that they intend to kill Americans any time and any place that they can; Osama bin Laden has said that his goal is the “bleeding [of] America to the point of bankruptcy” in order to utterly destroy our way of life. We were reminded of the wicked intentions of our enemies when we learned earlier this month of a plot, on the part of al Qaeda in Iraq, to use student visas to sneak at least 12 terrorists into the country to launch an attack. The lesson: The threat is real—and it keeps on coming. Indeed, Newt Gingrich deems the threat so serious that he calls it “World War III,” and when one considers that Islamic radicals have attacked targets ranging from skyscrapers in New York, subways in Madrid and London, and nightclubs in Bali, that terminology sounds pitch perfect. Mind you, we are not in a war against Islam, as some would like to define it (including al-Qaeda). We are in a pitched battle against the extremists inside the Muslim community who want to unite all of the “faithful” against the U.S. and the allies of Western Civilization.
The threat must be countered. In September 2006, Gingrich also said that the proper way to educate the public about the threat of “World War III” is to “communicate the scale of the anti-American coalition, the clarity of their desire to destroy America, and the requirement that we defeat them.” The third point—the requirement that we defeat our enemies—is the most important.
Winning the war against Islamic radicalism isn’t simply a matter of American pride, but of American survival. It comes down to preserving our safety, freedoms, values, and prosperity. The alternative, summed up well by Tony Blair in a 2003 speech to Congress, is “economic collapse, the backlash, the hatred, the division, the elimination of tolerance, until societies cease to reconcile their differences and become defined by them.” The best way to defend our society against the horrors described by Blair is through military strength, skillful diplomacy, the spreading of freedom, and clear delineations, in policy and speech, between those who would defend freedom and those who seek to destroy it. To do this we must regain our moral confidence, a deep belief that our country, though not perfect, is the world’s best hope for freedom and that our way of life is worth defending.
The threat can be countered. Despite our very real struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are learning this lesson in both countries. And we are learning it elsewhere in the world.
Consider recent developments in Somalia. There the radical Islamist regime that seized power in June 2005—the Union of Islamic Courts—folded faster than a deck of cards when confronted by the Ethiopian army. It seems the Ethiopians did not fancy the idea of having a neighboring country fall under the control of Islamic radicals, so they entered Somalia and drove the Islamists out of Mogadishu, the country’s capital. Since then, American forces have launched two air strikes intended to cut down fleeing Islamist operatives. To be sure, Somalia remains an unstable country with a still nascent government. But this is a significant, if temporary, victory for the people of Somalia, the United States, and for all those who value freedom over despotism.
These localized tests of strength go a long way in determining the outcome of the broader war we find ourselves in. In this case, the force shown by Ethiopian and American forces has created a situation where the Islamists have been defeated, a condition that allows all parties to consider reconciliation talks. And so we have a case study for the broader war. First, Ethiopian and U.S. forces recognized the Islamists as a threat to freedom; second, they committed themselves to countering that threat. Finally, they displayed the force, moral confidence, and determination to beat back the Islamists. Who knows, we might even call this a “freedom” tactic. Think Keith Olbermann would object?