Boston Marathon Bombing

The President(s) Who Cried Wolf


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What to make of an intensely jarring week of news, in which terrorists killed at least four people in Boston and injured more than 100 others, a fertilizer-plant explosion ripped apart the sweet little Czech town of West, Texas, and President Barack Obama and his supporters screamed out a collective "Shame on you!" in response to Congress voting down a series of gun control measures?

I think there's one element that all three events have in common. Compared to the nightmare-world freakout of 9/11—with its four hijacked planes, anthrax attacks, 9/14 Authorization of the Use of Military Force, PATRIOT Act, war, and intense, prolonged anxiety—the unsettling events of this past week have brought forth a surprising, cross-partisan, and underappreciated exhortation to maybe calm the hell down before doing anything we might regret later.

I don't recall the great terrorism/security contextualizer Bruce Schneier being a go-to expert during the George W. Bush era of the GWOT (except in the pages of Reason, of course), but he's all over the damned place this week: Washington Post, The Atlantic, and so on. Twitter, while full of the usual partisan idiocy and gun-jumping, has also featured a huge amount of pushback against premature assertions and point-scoring (if anything, my feed during the initial Boston Marathon bombing erred too much on the side of stifling speech in the named of crowd-sourced Twitter etiquette).

What does this have to do with President Obama's petulant scolding of Congress and the rest of us who didn't support his long-preferred gun control measures? Well, like 9/11 itself and plenty of tragedies since, the president of the United States attempted to use raw (and understandable) emotion to ram through legislation that probably wouldn't have affected the underlying crime and in any case would expand government power and restrict individual liberty.

But after nearly a dozen years of this kind of governance-as-crisis-response, Americans seem to be in on, and weary of, the con. A Reason-Rupe Poll from January found 52 percent believing that elected officials were exploiting Sandy Hook for political gain. Other polls have shown public opinion on guns staying relatively stable in the wake of the deadly shooting and its subsequent high-profile politics. When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) attempted to wave away Sen. Rand Paul's epic filibuster by scolding his colleagues for "no longer apparently think[ing] we're at war," an entire nation pointed and laughed. It's hard to imagine this act of foreign-born violence leading to no-really-I'm-serious defenses of nationality-based internment.

This sense of increasing national sanity could well evaporate if it turns out that the West, Texas tragedy was intentional. But my admittedly anecdotal impression is that after 11+ years of pretty damned crappy results, Americans have become deservedly skeptical of government claims that we MUST DO SOMETHING RIGHT NOW. It's a shame, though no surprise, that a president who came into office campaigning against the excesses of post-9/11 freakouts would simply graft his predecessor's M.O. of constant panic—down to the "if we can save just one life" trope—onto any number of suspicious legislative packages.

I talked about some of these issues Wednesday on Fox Business Network: