NEW YORK — In the midst of the only presidential election shaped by terrorism, John Kerry gave an interview to Matt Bai of The New York Times in the fall of 2004 that was simultaneously shrewd and politically maladroit.
Asked what it would take for Americans to again feel safe after 9/11, Kerry said, “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.”
Then, remembering to stress his background as a prosecutor in the early 1980s, Kerry stumbled into a disastrous analogy.
“As a former law-enforcement person,” he said, “I know we’re not going to end prostitution. We’re not going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where … it’s not threatening the fabric of our life.”
Pro tip: Never liken terrorism to prostitution and gambling. George W. Bush pounced on Kerry’s remarks both in speeches and in the final campaign debate, calling his opponent’s point of view “dangerous.”
Did it matter in the end? The 2004 election (decided by an 118,000-vote Bush margin in Ohio) was so close that everything mattered. According to Ohio exit polls, Bush bested Kerry by a margin of 48 to 30 percent as the candidate most trusted to handle terrorism.
But viewed from a perspective of 12 years, Kerry was more right than wrong. No one is going to describe the pressure-cooker bombs that could have killed dozens of New Yorkers last weekend as a nuisance. Yet only alarmists would liken the accused bomber, who apparently worked alone, with the 19 disciplined and fanatical hijackers who flew jets into the twin towers and the Pentagon.
True, jihadist websites and ISIS videos have a dangerous and not completely understood appeal to a small number of lost young Muslims who set off bombs. But the culture of guns also has a dangerous appeal to a small number of other lost young men who shoot up elementary schools and movie theaters.
In these troubled times, complete safety is not attainable. But, to be brutally honest, it never was. Think of the risks that we have always absorbed without thinking each time we get into a car. The word “terrorism” seems infinitely more frightening than the words “drunk driver” until you examine the statistics and dispassionately calculate the odds.
A sense of proportion
Please, don’t misunderstand.
I am not making light of the injuries in Chelsea over the weekend or of the earlier horrors in Orlando and San Bernardino. All I am arguing for is a sense of proportion so that we do not allow fear of terrorism to distort our lives and unjustified fear of all Muslims to poison our values.
I don’t purport to be a terrorism expert. But I am a New Yorker who was on the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport on 9/11. I lived through the tears and the fears when otherwise sane New Yorkers plotted escaping to New Jersey by kayak in an emergency and hoarded Cipro against the threat of anthrax.
But New York came back far faster than anyone could have imagined during the tear-stained autumn of 2001. The subways rumbled, theater audiences roared and tourists flocked. The threat of terrorism faded into the background like memories of the high-crime 1980s when a late-night trip around the corner to buy milk carried with it a whiff of danger.
As a journalist, I have been grappling to understand why Americans seem more fearful than at any time since the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A national survey in May by the nonpartisan research firm, PRRI, found that half of adult Americans worry that they or a family member will be the victim of terrorism. In contrast, only one third of those surveyed in November 2014 by PRRI harbored similar fears.
In the aftermath of the Chelsea bombing, there has been the usual torrent of glib certainty about how the terrorism issue will play in the debates and in November. But what the PRRI polling from earlier this year suggests is that views of terrorism reflect the same educational split that shapes the presidential race. While 54 percent of working class whites worry about terrorism only 37 percent of college-educated whites share these concerns.
Playing to type
Certainly, the presidential candidates played to type in the aftermath of a nervous weekend. Hillary Clinton’s words were responsible, cautious and forgettable. Donald Trump railed against the idea that the suspect, Ahmad Khan Rahami, would receive medical care and legal representation.
As Trump put it in a characteristic eruption during a Florida campaign rally Monday, “Now we will give him amazing hospitalization. He will be taken care of by some of the best doctors in the world. … And he’ll probably even have room service. … And on top of all that, he will be represented by an outstanding lawyer.”
In Trump’s America, terrorism suspects would be left bleeding on the sidewalk and lawyers would be denied to anyone the bilious billionaire considers already guilty.
In 2004, Trump’s fear-mongering almost certainly would have worked. And in Ohio today, it probably appeals to wavering blue-collar Democrats in places like Youngstown. But every time Trump goes into another anti-Muslim rant, it quite likely costs him votes among college-educated women in the Columbus and Cincinnati suburbs.
For all the predictable talk about a terrorism-related October surprise, maybe the true surprise of 2016 will be that we have matured as a nation. And, as Kerry might put it, that we will not allow a terrorist incident to become the focus of our politics.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.