Fear may be an unpleasant emotion, but lots of people go to considerable time and expense to seek it out. That's why there will always be a market for horror movies and roller coasters. It's also why many people prefer leaders who impersonate howler monkeys to those who insist on remaining calm.
The two basic options have been on display this week—first in President Barack Obama's Oval Office address on Sunday and then in Donald Trump's call for barring entry to all foreign Muslims on Monday. Trump thinks that if you're not terrified, you're not paying attention. Obama puts an emphasis on avoiding a dangerous overreaction at home or abroad.
The president is not exactly winning the argument. A CNN/ORC poll taken before his speech found that 60 percent of Americans disapprove of how he's addressed the terrorist threat, with only 38 percent approving. A majority now favors sending ground troops to fight the Islamic State.
His Republican detractors demand to know why his hair is not on fire. "People are really scared and worried," said Marco Rubio, who accused the president of showing insufficient emotion and downplaying the danger.
Trump, who cannot be accused of such sins, is riding a wave of support taller than anyone could have anticipated a few months ago. The latest CNN/ORC polls, taken before he urged a ban on Muslim arrivals, have him leading the Republican race nationally and in Iowa.
His closest competition is Ted Cruz, whose rhetoric on terrorism and Islam is only slightly less feverish. On Monday, Cruz said he doesn't think Trump's plan would be the "right solution" but couldn't resist lavishing praise: "I commend Donald Trump for standing up and focusing America's attention on the need to secure our borders."
Others took issue with Trump, but only for taking the fear-mongering slightly too far. The general view was that Obama needs to pump up the volume. Jeb Bush said the Oval Office address was "weak." George Pataki likened the speech to "a hostage video." Even some Democrats grouse that he doesn't convey the appropriate passion.
The central criticism is that Obama is not sufficiently frightened by the people trying to terrorize us. But acting rashly out of panic and dread is exactly what the enemy wants us to do. The president plainly believes the dangers of sober circumspection are far less than the risks of coming unglued.
Obama, it's true, has not found the magic formula to make the Islamic State disappear in a puff of smoke, but neither have his critics. Some remedies are ludicrous: Cruz said he would "direct the Department of Defense to destroy ISIS." Others are reckless: Lindsey Graham called for doubling the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and invading Syria.
Given a choice of unpromising responses to the Islamic State, there is something to be said for discarding the one that involves getting American soldiers and Marines killed in an open-ended war in a place we don't understand. That course of action would actually be a boon to the enemy.
"The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself," wrote journalist Graeme Wood in The Atlantic. "An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide: irrespective of whether they have given baya'a (allegiance) to the caliph, they all believe that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims. Yet another invasion and occupation would confirm that suspicion, and bolster recruitment."
Rejecting people who are fleeing from Syria or treating all Muslims as likely terrorists likewise would help the enemy's attempt to portray us as hateful infidels persecuting Islam. By accepting refugees and defending the rights of Muslims, Obama contradicts this narrative.
He also guards against the mistakes Americans have made in the past during periods of crisis. Trump compared his own plan to Franklin Roosevelt's decision to intern Japanese-Americans and their children during World War II. "This is a president who was highly respected by all; he did the same thing," said Trump.
It's a fair analogy, but not a gleaming badge of honor. In 1983, a congressional commission recommended an official apology for the internment, which it ascribed not to an authentic threat but to "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership."
Maybe we learned our lesson from that unwarranted lapse into panic. Trump, however, is not the only candidate betting that we didn't.
© Copyright 2015 by Creators Syndicate Inc.