What a difference a day makes. On Saturday, American politics was mired in a loopy but degrading controversy over President Obama’s birth certificate, hyped in the latest campaign of divisive paranoia by Fox News, would-be Republican presidential candidate, the real-estate mogul and professional vulgarian Donald Trump, and a host of Republican hopefuls and hucksters. But, by Sunday night, the nation was hailing President Obama, who suddenly appeared to announce Osama Bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. forces. In his speech, Obama spoke of national unity in the light of the justice meted out to the conspirator behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For the moment, at least, the engines of paranoia have gone silent. Will the long cycle of outrageous attacks, innuendo, and conspiracy-mongering, the politicized by-product of the war on terror, at last come to an end?
The current round of paranoid politics got started in the 1990s, with bizarre stories about drug-running, murder plots, and other pseudo-scandals committed by Bill Clinton, the president who first targeted bin Laden and narrowly missed killing him in Afghanistan in 1998. But the paranoia ramped up after September 11, as the so-called architect of permanent Republican domination, Karl Rove, then President George W. Bush’s White House aide, informed the Republican National Committee that its strategy for political power centrally involved exploiting terrorism. Only the GOP should be depicted as serious about terrorism, while the Democrats should be cast as weak and soft. In the 2002 midterm elections, Republicans campaigned with a vengeance on the stark appeal to fear—remember the attacks on Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, a triple amputee Vietnam veteran?—and they regained the Senate in 2002. Paranoia was gold. The strategy was applied again in the Swift-Boating of the Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, in 2004, in a multi-million dollar campaign falsely assailing the decorated Vietnam War hero as a fraud, coward, and un-American elitist exotic.
But, in the Bush administration’s second term, its policy catastrophes and political misfortunes allowed the Democrats to recapture Congress in 2006 and the White House two years later. Out of power, the paranoid style completely took over the Republicans. Glenn Beck revived the long-dormant fantasies of the John Birch Society and became a media star. Tea Party organizers blasted the moderately liberal Obama as the tool of a socialist plot. So-called “birthers” persuaded a majority of Republicans to doubt whether the elected President of the United States is American and instead suspect he is a foreign-born Muslim, whose entire presidency is therefore illegitimate. The peddlers of paranoia once again manipulated elements of the mainstream press into transmitting these views as if they were simply a plausible point of view.
There is some truth, alas, to claims that the lurid attacks on Obama have had something to do with his skin color. But the cycle of paranoia preceded his appearance on the national stage, and was deployed as a highly-effective political strategy that capitalized on the all-too-real challenges of Al Qaeda and the war on terrorism. Now, suddenly, reality has intruded—this time with gratifying and not horrifying news. President Obama and his administration have achieved bin Laden’s demise. The menace of course persists, but a circle has been closed, and a spirit of relief prevails. But will bin Laden’s death end the cycle of malicious fantasy and political paranoia that has held the country in its grip? If so, the raid on his compound will have been propitious in ways above and beyond countering the genuine external threats to our national security.
Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of Bob Dylan in America (Doubleday).
Articles on the death of Osama bin Laden: Dalton Fury on the near miss at Tora Bora; Lawrence F. Kaplan asks if we'll overestimate the importance of bin Laden's death; Heather Hurlburt on the reasons the U.S. was able to kill bin Laden; James Downie on the legal justifications; Leon Wieseltier on the celebration in Lafayette Park; Jonathan Kay on the emergence of conspiracy theories; Paul Berman on the symbolism of bin Laden's death in the history of American democracy; David Greenberg on the only satisfying resolution possible to the story of 9/11; Louis Klarevas asks if the loss of bin Laden will hasten Al Qaeda's demise; Jonathan Chait on what bin Laden's death means; a photo essay on how America responded to the news of bin Laden's death.
TNR Classics on bin Laden and Al Qaeda: Peter Bergen on the Bush administration's failed attempt to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora, on the troubling merger of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, on Al Qaeda's revolt against bin Laden (co-authored with Paul Cruickshank), how bin Laden beat George W. Bush, and on bin Laden's activities before 9/11; Nicholas Schmidle on what the murder of a bin Laden confidant says about Pakistan; Michael Crowley on Robert Gates; David Cole on Obama's war on terror.