For years, Pakistan made a national security bargain. Seeing India as an existential threat, and believing that they couldn’t match India’s military strength directly, Pakistan’s intelligence forces promoted a variety of Islamist terrorist organizations as proxy fighters in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.
It was always a risky scheme, and in the last couple of years, many people, including many in Pakistan, have come to recognize that these state-supported terrorist groups are a far deeper threat to Pakistan’s existence than India is.
Here in the US, since 9/11, we’ve had a fanatical focus on the threat of foreign terrorists. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, that was understandable: we thought they were far deadlier than they turned out to be, and we had no idea what was coming next.
Unfortunately, in the panic that ensued, a political culture was created that saw dissent as treason, and dissenters as a danger to our existence. Opponents of, say, the Patriot Act, or the prison at Guantanamo, or the war in Iraq were not just political adversaries but enemies.
Those who created that political climate were making a bargain a little like Pakistan’s. A key problem with that kind of rhetoric is what happens when these supposed enemies take over the state, which happened in January of 2009. They took it over, of course, through the constitutional means of free and fair elections, and have done nothing to suggest that there won’t be more elections on the same regular schedule Americans are used to. This was hardly a coup d’etat. But no matter. If you’ve convinced people that the political opposition is an existential threat to your country, then you’ve got a problem on your hands when the opposition takes over.
What makes this bargain similar to Pakistan’s is that America faces significant threats from domestic terrorism. Indeed, through most of our history, domestic terrorism has been far more meaningful than foreign terrorism. The second-worst terrorist attack in our history was the Oklahoma City bombing, carried out by fanatical right-wing American terrorists. And if you lump in other forms of political violence that usually go by other names — lynch mobs, race riots (whatever the race of the rioters), hate crimes, assassinations — it’s clear that home-grown fanaticism has been far more dangerous to us than foreign fanatics could ever hope to be.
Let’s hope that we don’t face another Oklahoma City, or another major assassination. Let’s hope that the rhetoric can be brought down to a more responsible level before someone ends up dead. And let’s be realistic about what genuinely threatens democracy in America.