CNN Shares Responsibility for the Fear-Mania of the GOP Debate

Carson, Trump, and Cruz synchronize their watches before the Tuesday night debate. (Mike Blake / Reuters) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Let’s start with the First Rule of Terrorism, which this era’s attackers either know instinctively or have learned. That rule is: The purpose of terrorism is not to kill or maim or destroy.

For the attackers, such crimes are merely tactics, on the way to a different goal, which is to terrorize. The strategic ambition is to use attacks and atrocities to change people’s emotions and arouse their fears. The aim is to make strong societies feel desperate and helpless, and to make objectively very small threats seem subjectively very large. (Nearly 100 Americans die each day from gunshots. The horrific gunshot deaths of 14 people in San Bernardino, a few hours’ toll at normal rates, have the potential to change the country’s domestic politics and international policies.) With enough provocation, eventually a strong society may lose its sense of proportion and understanding of its long term interests and instead take some panicky self-destructive step. (See: War in Iraq, origins of.)

With that in mind, think of the first two thirds of last night’s debate, which were exclusively about ISIS, fear, and threat, exactly the over-emphasis an anti-US entity would hope for.

On the positive side: We did learn from this session that Donald Trump, competing to have his finger on the nuclear-attack button, simply has no idea what the “nuclear triad” is. (If you’re wondering, the triad refers to the three systems that carry U.S. nuclear warheads: submarines, bomber airplanes, and land-based ballistic missiles.) If you are running to be president and don’t know this, there is too much else you obviously also don’t know. To put it in context, this is like applying for a position on The Apprentice and having no idea what “the bottom line” is, or applying to be an airline pilot job and not knowing how to interpret “cleared to  land.” You can learn quickly what all these things mean, but if you have never heard of them, it means there is a lot more you don’t know. If realities mattered in this race, what Trump has just revealed would be fundamentally disqualifying ignorance for someone seeking a position of command responsibility.

And we got to see some skirmishing among the others, notably among Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul.

But the GOP’s overall goal was to replicate the tone on Fox News, and vice versa, which in both cases is essentially: risk, risk, risk; fear, fear, fear; ISIS, ISIS, ISIS; alien, alien, alien. All of this is toward the end of demonstrating Obama’s weakness and failure. Unfortunately, it is also at direct odds with U.S. strategic interests. A resilient nation seeks to minimize the effects of any terrorist attacks that, in a society that retains any liberties, will lamentably still occur. A nation that wants to magnify the effects of terrorism yells “The attackers are everywhere!” “We’re all going to die!!!” Because they consider it useful against the “feckless” Obama, the latter has been the 2016 GOP approach (as Jeet Heer wrote on Tuesday night). It could box them into strategically foolish policies if they took office.

Ramp-up-the-fear was also the result of CNN’s approach tonight. Much more than half of the show was about ISIS / ISIL, Syria, and refugees. Here’s a promise: whoever becomes the next president will and should spend much less than half of his or her time on ISIS and Syria. The presidential topics that are not directly about ISIS—China, Russia, Mexico, the economic and political tensions in Europe, the entirety of Latin America and Africa, Iran, India, Pakistan, Japan, the South China Sea—any one of these, on its own, has a chance to occupy more of the next president’s time and attention than ISIS. Together they very certainly will. Not to mention: trade deals, the economy, job creation, budgets and deficits, medical care, and a thousand other issues.

But ISIS-centrism, which at the moment is shorthand for fear, is the way Wolf Blitzer set up the meat of the debate.

What would have been a simple act of balance from CNN?

Even one question about other elements of foreign policy—starting with the issue that has dominated world news in the past week, that is arguably the most successful achievement of U.S. diplomacy since the assemblage of the Gulf War coalition in 1991, and that in the view of most U.S.-allied nations involves the major challenge to global welfare. That is of course the deal announced in Paris to address climate change.

We can assume that all GOP candidates would oppose it. But for CNN not even to ask, in a very, very long debate supposedly about threats to the national interest, was embarrassing and bad.

I can understand the CNN questioners not calling out the politicians, in real time, on some obviously preposterous-on-their-face claims—for instance, Cruz’s assertion that Bill Clinton had “deported” 12 million people, and George W. Bush 10 million. The questioners might not have known the real numbers in real time (they’re maybe one-fifth that large). They should have known the comeback to Carly Fiorina’s claim that Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal lost their commands because they told Commander-in-Chief Obama things he didn’t want to hear. Without getting into all the details, that’s flat wrong. (Petraeus left the military to take a civilian job as head of the CIA, and he left the CIA because of a sex scandal; McChrystal left his command because of unauthorized talks with a Rolling Stone reporter.) If Fiorina didn’t know that, Wolf Blitzer must have, but he didn’t correct her.

But again, those were in real time. By contrast, it was within CNN’s control as a matter of planning to decide to ask so very much about the ISIS perils, and nothing whatsoever about climate or the Paris deal—if only to get the candidates on record about the different reasons they opposed it. I’m really sorry that CNN missed this chance.