At the "Civil Forum" at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California this weekend, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) repeated a favorite line of his about Osama bin Laden:
If I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. . . . No one should be allowed to take thousands of American, innocent American lives. Of course evil must be defeated . . . we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century–radical Islamic extremists.
What a gift to the recruiting efforts of Al Qaeda! - to have an American presidential candidate declare himself a follower of Osama bin Laden. According to McCain, Bin Laden is so powerful that he poses a "transcendent" challenge to John McCain's United States.
In his cogent, well-supported, and readable article, "What Terrorists Really Want," Max Abrahms at UCLA argues that terrorists "are rational people who use terrorism primarily to develop strong affective ties with fellow terrorists." Think of Al Qaeda as a gang that disaffected youth might join - something powerful to belong to that gives their lives meaning.
McCain's "gates of hell" talk is leadership malpractice, and he should stop using it immediately. Calling the threat of terrorism "transcendent" is equal parts incoherent and false. Terrorism stands no chance of defeating the United States or the West unless we ourselves collapse the society. Speaking this way about terrorism thrills our terrorist enemies and draws recruits and support to them. Silence would be much better, presidential campaign or no.
I wrote here a year and a half ago about the sensible thinking of Bill Bishop, Director of the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security. He understood that our national ID law, the REAL ID Act, fails as a security tool. Something else about Bishop came back to me as I was recently reading Abrahms' article: Bishop wouldn't even speak the name of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. This is how he exhibited his loathing for a shameless terrorist killer, and it also happens to comport with sensible counter-terrorism.
Exalting terrorism - as John McCain does with his "gates of hell" talk - is precisely the wrong thing for a national leader to do. The country will be made more secure by deflating the world image of Osama bin Laden and making his movement less attractive. Our leaders must withdraw rhetorical power from terrorists by controlling their tongues.