ON SEPTEMBER 14, MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR Mitt Romney stood before the Heritage Foundation to outline his thoughts on how to best wage the war on terror. In addition to being widely considered a likely candidate for president in 2008, Romney brings impressive credentials to a discussion on battling terrorism. In 2002, Romney was in charge of the Salt Lake City Olympics, which took place a few short months after the 9/11 attacks. For Romney, thwarting terrorism has long been more than merely a theoretical concern.
The thrust of Romney's formulation is that battling terrorism consists of three basic prongs: Response (such as fire engines and ambulances going to the site of an attack), protection (such as concrete barricades or checking the backpacks of New York City subway riders), and prevention. Romney strongly feels that prevention is what will make us safest, and that important ingredients of prevention--such as intelligence gathering--should receive special emphasis.
During his address to the Heritage Foundation, Romney raised the following issues specifically in regards to intelligence gathering: "How many individuals are coming to our state and going to (academic) institutions who have come from terrorist-sponsored states? Do we know where they are? Are we tracking them? How about people who are in settings--mosques, for instance--that may be teaching doctrines of hate and terror. Are we monitoring that? Are we wiretapping? Are we following what's going on?"
Given the world's empirical recent experience with terror attacks, those comments should not have been controversial. After all, while it is obviously true that few Muslims are terrorists, a very high percentage of terrorists are Muslims. Specifically, a very high percentage of terrorists fit a specific profile that was reflected in Romney's comments: they are youthful, from certain states, and attend radical mosques
Nonetheless, Romney's speech triggered a spasm of activity from America's grievance industry. The Boston Globe rushed in to mischaracterize Romney's comments. CAIR expressed outrage. And, of course, the liberal blogs reached a particular low.
For his part, Romney isn't backing down.
ROMNEY HAS A UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE. Having been in charge of the Salt Lake City Olympics when America's fear of terror was at its height, he learned the limitations and potential of the various prongs of battling terror.
One of the ongoing problems of America's battle against terrorism is that protection and response have received a great deal of budgetary funds while prevention has been underfunded. Yet at the Olympics, Romney learned first-hand of the limitations of protection and response. In Salt Lake City, he had a budget of $330 million to secure 10 athletic facilities. And yet even that was not enough; as he points out, during the entire time, he remained acutely aware of the facilities' vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities weren't due to a lack of funds. As he puts it, "You can have unlimited spending on response and protection and you still won't be safe."
What did give Romney a sense of security at the Olympics were the intelligence teams protecting the Games: "The intelligence capability gave me the most confidence in our security."
And Romney is dismayed that this commitment to intelligence isn't reflected across the board. As he observed, "There were far more intelligence teams safeguarding the Olympics than there are in Massachusetts for a year."
ROMNEY'S SPEECH was a plea for the United States to begin directing more resources toward terror prevention. His comments regarding radical mosques and foreign students were illustrations of the kind of areas where those resources could be directed. Nowhere in his speech, or in subsequent comments, did he suggest that wire-tapping laws or other surveillance statutes be altered to allow increased scrutiny of mosques.
Nonetheless, Romney's comments were deemed insufficiently sensitive and impermissibly candid.
The Boston Globe started the ball rolling by headlining its account: "Wiretap Mosques, Romney Suggests."
Having had the audacity to notice the link between radical Islam and terror, Romney drove CAIR to issue one of its "Action Alerts." CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper fretted that "It's irresponsible for the top elected official in any state to suggest blanket wiretapping of houses of worship."
At least some portions of the public were buying what the Globe and Hooper were selling. "I am left speechless with shock, anger, embarrassment, and shame over what I read on the front page of the Globe . . . about Governor Mitt Romney's outrageous suggestion to wiretap mosques," read one Globe letter to the editor, which concluded that "This proposal immediately brings to mind the internment of the Japanese during World War II. Is that coming next? It is not a far reach when history is recalled."
Finally, the tolerant progressives at the Daily Kos, appeared on the scene. Appalled by Romney's insensitivity to those of another faith, Kos diarist "Skralyx" observed, "Actually, Mormonism strikes many as a sort of deviant faith, so maybe Mitt himself should be hooked up to a surveillance device." "Skralyx" was done one better by commenter "Brother Dave" who broke it down into a mathematical proof:
Romney = Mormon
Mormon = Rascist [sic]
Mormon = Fascist
Mormon = Republican
The math was never simpler.
FOR HIS PART, Romney is somewhat perplexed at to why his comments triggered such a firestorm. After all, he notes, it is only sensible that radical mosques receive more of our terror fighting attention "than the 4H Club." What's more, Romney has steadily repeated that the vast majority of American mosques pose no danger.
But Romney also observes that it is "the first obligation of a public official to see to the public's safety. Prevention resources should go where the risk of threat is greatest."
The fact that vast elements of American society consider even a discussion of where the "risk of threat" is greatest is somewhat chilling. The further fact that a single politician's willingness to discuss them is controversial is more chilling, still.
Dean Barnett writes about politics and other matters at soxblog.com