Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Coming to Terms With Terrorism

By Shawn Healy
Perhaps more than any other issue, terrorism determined the outcome of the 2004 presidential election. President Bush appealed to so-called "security moms" in the suburbs, suggesting that he alone understood the true threat that terrorism posed for Americans at home and abroad. Today we are nearly seven years removed from the devastating 9/11 attacks, and the issue has dropped to fourth in Gallup's rankings of what is most important in determining Americans' presidential vote. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the United States has not suffered another terrorist attack on the home front, or maybe it is merely trumped by an unpopular war, economic anxieties, and a broader search for competence and clean government.

Regardless, 40 percent of voters claim that a candidate's position on terrorism is still important, and in examining the respective positions on the issue in this fourth installment of the Pass the Pundits series, clear differences emerge aside a few striking similarities. Both Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama begin with the premise that the federal government is not doing enough to strengthen the security of the homeland, but their means of arriving there are strikingly different. Indeed, they get to the fundamental difference between the two parties' approach to terrorism. It starts with terminology, and this in itself is revealing. Obama couches his plan as "homeland security," while McCain repeats the mantra of a "global war on terrorism."

It continues with the overarching basis of their approaches. Obama is apt to emphasize issues on the domestic front like the security of nuclear power plants, local water supplies, and emergency response plans. In effect, he takes a defensive stance on the issue. McCain, by contrast, speaks of a missile defense system, an expanded and modernized military, and an aggressive pursuit of terrorists throughout the world. In Mayor Rudy Giuliani's words, McCain prefers to play offense.

These general themes specified, let's dive into the specifics. McCain's policy proposals are certainly more general than his less-experienced, but more nuanced opponent, but a perusal of his position paper is particularly revealing, especially when placed beside that of Obama's. McCain centers his plan around a strong military, not surprising given his family background. He laments the overextended tours of duty borne by our troops and their families, arguing that they deter reenlistment, even recruitment. In response, he suggests that the size of our military must match our national threat, meaning that both the Army and the Marines should be expanded. Moreover, benefits should be increased for current and retired members of the Armed Forces. McCain is firm in his commitment to America's veterans.

McCain places military modernization beside expansion, urging our armed forces to adopt 21st Century technologies, training tactics, and intelligence gathering to meet contemporary threats quite different from those posed during the Cold War. Moreover, McCain, ever the deficit hawk, deplores pork barrel spending in all corners. In his words, "Too often, parochial interests - rather than the national interest - have guided our spending decisions." In an apparent jab at President Bush, McCain argues that military spending should be included in the regular budgeting process, not in emergency spending bills that open the gates for "pigs" to feed at the proverbial trough.

Obama, as highlighted earlier, is almost entirely homeland-focused. The largest similarity between the two candidates is their suggestion that homeland security dollars should be allocated on the premise of risk, not political expediency. Obama touts his record as an Illinois state senator in helping the state prepare an emergency response plan, including policies to protect individuals with disabilities during times of disaster and to help families locate loved ones in emergency zones (i.e., Katrina). He promises more money for first responders and strengthened communications systems.

Much of his position paper on the issue of terrorism is devoted to infrastructural protection for both man-made and natural disasters. This applies to chemical plants, nuclear waste, airline and port security, public transit, and local water supplies. In every case, he recommends stricter oversight and more monies directed toward these areas. Obama and McCain also dive into border security, but I will save this topic for my tenth and final post on immigration.

Finally, Obama enters the area of intelligence gathering, promising greater coordination of domestic operations, along with expanding analysis at the state and local level. The bulk of his attention is centered on reforming the USA PATRIOT Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the restoration of habeas corpus for enemy combatants. He calls for greater oversight of the PATRIOT Act and FISA (watch his vote on the latter in the coming days as Congress has crafted a bipartisan compromise), and praised the Supreme Court's decision last week striking down the Military Commissions Act for failure to offer enemy combatants held at Guantanamo the right to appeal. McCain, by contrast, called it one of the worst decisions in history. However, both condemn torture and promise to close down the notorious detention center in Cuba.

Overall, Obama has shown a willingness to reject Republican claims that he holds a Sept. 10 mind set, even though his policies mirror those of 2004 Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry, who fell susceptible to these charges. The junior Illinois senator contends that the GOP has no credibility on the issue given that Osama bin Laden is still on the run and it was distracted from prosecuting our legitimate operations against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan by invading Iraq under false premises.

Looking at the two candidates' records, Obama has proposed a variety of legislation in the realm of homeland security (chemical plant security, nuclear waste disposal, water supply protection), but has little to show for his initiatives in terms of substantive legislation. He has served on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and did realize some success in this realm as a state senator (see above). McCain, by comparison, pushed for the creation of the 9-11 Commission, the largest investigation of our government in history, the recommendations of which Obama embraces. The senior Arizona senator also sponsored the creation of the Dept. of Homeland Security, along with the U.S. Northern Command, responsible for domestic defense.

Experience aside, the two candidates take diametrically different positions on how to combat terrorism. Like the Iraq War and fiscal policy, Americans will face a stark choice when it comes to approaches to defeating terrorism come November. To invoke a couple of football analogies, Obama argues that the best form of offense is a good defense. McCain, on the other hand, wants to put early points on the board, demoralizing the enemy from the outset. Seven years into this post-9-11 world where Americans face the daily fear of terrorism, we are left to decide which coach will lead us to victory.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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