The Terrorist Defense Initiative

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.

First, it’s obvious some of the president’s policies are working. So far, the central objective is being achieved: There have been no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9-11.

Accordingly, Democrats have had little success mobilizing public opinion against Bush administration initiatives aimed at spying on terrorists inside the United States, preventing them from getting in, monitoring their international finances and communications, and prosecuting them when they are discovered here. The principle obstacles to initiatives of this sort have been raised by unelected judges, not by Congress, which did not cancel NSA’s warrantless eavesdropping program, but did re-authorize the PATRIOT Act.

There was virtually no opposition to invading Afghanistan. It was too obvious that the perpetrators of 9-11 were allied with the Taliban.

It is the president’s Iraq and immigration policies that have lost popular support.

On immigration, House Republicans had to drag President Bush kicking and screaming to sign substantive measures to secure the border. Even then, his actions are too little, too late. Who doubts that terrorists similar to those in "24" could walk across our borders this morning?

At the outset, invading Iraq was arguably a wise component in a National Terrorism Defense. When the CIA reported that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling WMDs and had links to al-Qaida — which Sen. Hillary Clinton attested to on the Senate floor — it was hard to discount the argument that allowing Saddam to remain in power posed some risk of terrorism to the United States. The prudential question was whether that risk was greater than the risks that might ensue from deposing him.

President Bush made a judgment that was ratified by bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress. When the CIA’s intelligence turned out to be wrong, and the risks of deposing Saddam turned out to be far greater than many expected, that judgment appeared to many Americans, in retrospect, to be mistaken.

Who can blame them?

But the more important question is prospective, and again requires prudential judgment. What policies in Iraq today will decrease the chances that terrorists will kill thousands in Los Angeles tomorrow?

All the politicians lining up to replace George Bush in the Oval Office better be ready to explain convincingly and in detail how Iraq fits in to their Terrorist Defense Initiative.