A ‘nightmare scenario’ for voters as well

New York terror attacks prompt tough words, even when they are unable to entirely prevent

Ahmad Khan Rahami is suspected of the bombings that rocked New York and New Jersey. Nicolaus Czarnecki / Boston Herald via AP
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When New York governor Andrew Cuomo described the bomb attacks in the city as a “nightmare scenario”, he was correct on several levels. The freedoms in the West make them susceptible to this kind of terrorism, but his description is also true in a wider sense because the difficulty of preventing these kinds of attacks plays into the hands of politicians who are willing to resort to fearmongering and demagoguery to turn terror into political capital.

The status of the suspected bomber, Ahmad Khan Rahami, as an Afghan-born naturalised American citizen has already affected the talking points of the United States presidential election relating to immigration, refugees and terrorism. Republican candidate Donald Trump was the first to weigh in, even before the nature of the incident was clear, saying “we are going to get tough and smart and vigilant, and we are going to end it”. His Democrat opponent Hillary Clinton swiftly followed, saying Mr Trump’s “irresponsible, reckless rhetoric” has been identified by counterterrorism experts as helping ISIL to recruit new fighters. She also noted that she had been in the White House situation room and helped “neutralise our enemies”, adding: “I know how to do this.”

The reality is that for all the tough talk, in countries that have robust civil liberties and the rule of law it is almost impossible to prevent these kinds of attacks. As in the repeated terrorist incidents in France and other parts of Europe in recent years, the attackers have been citizens rather than fighters from outside the country, so they have all the rights and privileges relating to freedom of movement.

It is likely that both candidates know this reality full well, but they also know on a political level that it is important to sound tough to voters who are seeking simple and reassuring answers to the highly complex problem posed by terrorism.

Both candidates’ responses fit into the category of sounding tough rather than presenting a solid and nuanced policy. For voters who fear falling victim to a random act of terrorism – which is, after all, the goal of those who use terror as a political tactic – there is more comfort in tough talk than in vague words about addressing the causes of radicalisation or about balancing a citizen’s civil liberties against counterterrorism. Governor Cuomo is right: this is a nightmare scenario if this kind of demagoguery becomes a deciding factor in the election less than seven weeks away.