Extremism Rules Abroad, at Home in Wake of 9/11

COMMENTARY | September 11, 2001, began a new, daunting era in American, and world, history. A score of hijackers completed a devastating attack on the sole remaining superpower, putting a physical, emotional, and psychological thorn in the side of an economic and military giant that had stood tall since the end of the Cold War 10 years earlier. The relatively idyllic 1991-2001 decade was America’s comfort zone – a good economy and unprecedented international prestige made us proud.

September 11 changed the game, both at home and abroad. We were not invincible. We now knew that people hated us simply for who we were. Fear and anger crept into the national psyche. We felt aggressive and defensive. The smiling all-American of the 1990s now had a furrowed brow and gritted teeth.

On the political stage this may have played out in the 2008 and upcoming 2012 presidential election cycles. The 2008 presidential contest saw a plethora of candidates driving record-setting fundraising levels, according to The Associated Press. The 2012 lineup of Republicans, facing down an incumbent Barack Obama after a 2008 loss, is also amazingly large, with UPI placing Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann atop conservative polls in an upcoming South Carolina contest.

Why these smorgasbords of candidates in the two most recent election cycles?

Perhaps the fracturing of politics in America is simply a reflection of the increasing complexity of the international situation. The Cold War made things simple: We and the Russkis played a game of nuclear and cloak-and-dagger chess to try to intimidate our way to superior vantage points. The world was balanced. While the tension undoubtedly gave men and women in D.C. and Moscow scores of ulcers, it was simple.

Now there’s a new stress and a new threat: Islamic fundamentalism.

We worry about hijackers, radiological “dirty bombs,” suicide bombers, jihadists, and enough post-9/11 vocabulary words to bring a high schooler to tears. We hear about Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia. Multiple points of hazard.

Working with governments and quasi-governments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan has been daunting, inefficient, and we don’t know where our money has gone. As a Great Recession gnaws at our nation’s bottom line we grow increasingly angry at unreliable allies in the Middle East who cannot account for the funds we deliver.

We’re angry and tense, and perhaps we want our politics to be angry and tense as well. Though we all claim we seek moderation, maybe we’re lying to ourselves? Perhaps we secretly like “fringe” and “extreme” candidates because they make us feel that our own personal views are more acceptable?

Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, according to Fox News, is the middle-ground Republican who is calling out for moderation during this tense election cycle. But the public has certainly left Huntsman’s campaign platform unnoticed. He’s the middle-of-the-road guy in an era when we want fringe, though we say otherwise in public.

Perhaps that is why Bachmann’s gaffes, occurring frequently, according to Mail Online, have yet to sink her campaign. Perhaps that is why gun-loving Rick Perry, known for waving a pistol at a rally and shooting a coyote that was allegedly threatening his daughter’s dog, according to statesman.com, is doing just fine in the polls.

The world is more extreme and complex since 9/11 — and maybe, deep down, we think having politicians as extreme and complex as the world itself is the best way to keep pace. A milquetoast moderate may not help us feel Islamic fundamentalism is being successfully countered, while a pistol-packing cowboy prez from Texas may help us sleep easy.

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