Globe Editorial

From Obama, a crucial insight

September 26, 2010

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BOB WOODWARD’S “Obama’s Wars’’ is sure to draw attention to personality clashes and policy battles among Cabinet secretaries, White House advisers, and the military brass. Entertaining as such palace intrigues may be, however, there is something President Obama is quoted as saying that deserves at least as much consideration.

“We can absorb a terrorist attack,’’ Obama told Woodward in July. “We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever . . . we absorbed it and we are stronger.’’ The book makes clear that Obama spends a lot of time reviewing threats of new terrorist attacks on American soil. And he has ordered more overseas drone attacks on would-be terrorists than any predecessor. So it’s refreshing to learn that he still can maintain a healthy perspective on the terrorist threat to America — an outlook Obama ought to communicate directly to the public.

During the Bush administration, the frequent color alerts served to keep the nation vigilant, but also anxious and fearful. Rather than operate in silence, Obama should convey his own sense of the terrorist threat to American citizens, treating them as adults capable of coming to terms with a danger that is ever-present but not apocalyptic.

This month, French, German, and British officials have spoken openly about tips from various sources about impending terrorist plots in those countries. Psychologically, it may be easier for a society to cope with the terrorist threat when authorities take people into their confidence. Over time, it becomes less shocking for, say, the Eiffel Tower to be closed down to prevent a bomb plot without spurring fears of a thermonuclear attack.

Such an ability to appreciate the existence of terrorism, and process the risks without living in fear, is the best response to the threats: It deprives Al Qaeda and its ilk of the ability to unnerve the public. If Obama can craft a confidence-inspiring speech on race relations in America, he should be able to do something similar on the persistent threat of terrorism. Americans need to hear that the absence of another large-scale attack since 2001 does not mean that terrorism is vanquished, but also that another attack would not mean the downfall of the nation. The president should tell Americans that we have to live with the terrorist pathology — and that we will outlive it.

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