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Politicians in America's Heartland Are Spreading Fear to Get Votes

You know an election is coming up when candidates from both parties are sowing fear and disinformation about the threat the Islamic State poses to the US.

Tom Cotton, a Senate candidate in Arkansas who has made the Islamic State sound like a batch of G.I. Joe villains. Photo via Flickr user Gage Skidmore

"I believe that the Islamic State is an imminent threat to our nation." Thus proclaimed Colorado Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner in a televised debate Wednesday night. Gardner apparently felt no need to provide evidence for this assertion, as if the reality of the imminence of an IS attack on the United States homeland should have been manifestly obvious to all viewers. Naturally, his opponent, Democratic Senator Mark Udall, didn't bother to challenge the claim, presumably because doing so could've opened him up to charges of displaying insufficient aggression toward the Big New Scary Terrorist Group. The moment passed essentially unnoticed; after all, why would anyone question the idea that Colorodans might die in a terroristic fireball at any moment?

And so continued the national trend of politicians hailing from rural America trumping up the danger supposedly posed by the Islamic State to farmers, ranchers, small business owners, and other denizens of the heartland.

After watching a slew of US Senate debates for the upcoming midterm elections-an activity I recommend to no sane person-I've concluded that candidates running for office in places extremely unlikely to ever be targeted by jihadists seem to be the ones most riled up about the Islamic State. Perhaps because these candidates often are laughably unschooled in the realm of foreign policy, being local legislators and such, they typically have no damned idea what they're talking about.

(Such rhetoric doesn't appear to be nearly as heated in places like New York City or Washington, DC, which are presumably more at risk for a terrorist attack.)

Republican Senate candidate Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Congressman who routinely touts his military service in Iraq-and is one of the few Republicans still willing to openly praise George W. Bush's incomprehensibly stupid war as "just and noble"-has taken to portraying IS as basically Cobra from G.I. Joe.

"They're the most well financed organization potentially in modern times," Cotton declared this week on the debate stage, dubbing the group a "terrorist army." Now, the Islamic State has certainly demonstrated the capacity to wreak destruction on Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, Shiites, and others, and its fighters are undoubtedly fierce, but Cotton's implication-that these men with guns two continents away are somehow a danger to the security of average Americans-is patently absurd.

For good measure, Cotton threw in a jab at his opponent, Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, for supposedly neglecting to safeguard the public from Ebola; a classic one-two scaremongering punch.

These guys know exactly what they're doing, as if following a sordid script. Political science literature shows that people generally become more conservative when they perceive their community to be under threat from foreign infiltration, whether by terrorists or communicable disease. So when Pat Roberts, the geriatric Republican Senator from Kansas, said that he "stood up to the president, keeping terrorists out of Kansas," you could practically hear the dog-whistle cry of I'm the only one who can keep the Big Scary Terrorists from suicide-bombing your cattle. Never mind that he was likely referring to his ludicrous effort, in 2009, to prevent Guantánamo detainees from being transferred to Fort Leavenworth, one of the military's securest facilities. (Guantánamo remains open due in part to the work of Roberts and his colleagues.)

Across the nation, cynical candidates-mostly Republicans, but not exclusively-have taken to tailoring the amorphous Islamic State threat to fit their localized political needs. Mike McFadden, a hapless Minnesota GOPer almost certain to lose to incumbent senator and former comedian Al Franken, announced, "In Minnesota, we've become the number-one recruiting area for terrorists." What does this mean, exactly? Who cares! All McFadden wants is for voters to believe that there's some undefined terrorist danger out there, and Franken hasn't done enough to aggressively combat it.

(Franken has engaged in a bit of anti-terrorist chest-thumping himself, having written a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder last month calling for an investigation into possible Islamic State recruitment activities in Minnesota.)

The most ridiculous terrorist-related ballyhoo, however, has come from Thom Tillis, the Republican trying for Senator Kay Hagan's seat in North Carolina. In a recent debate, Tillis alleged that President Obama "gives strength to the terrorists" by way of his wayward foreign policy-a charge that enlivens elements of the electorate which already suspect that Barack Hussein Obama harbors some bizarre ulterior motives in his dealings with the Islamic State. Tillis needs these folks to come out to the polls.

Hagan responded by positioning herself as even more stalwartly anti-terrorist than Tillis, deriding him as "spineless" with respect to this foreign menace, and being insufficiently "decisive about taking out [the Islamic State]." Hagan then went a step further, accusing Tillis of also failing to recognize the danger of what she termed "the Khorosan."

Hagan was referring to "the Khorosan group," a much-hyped but now discredited threat lurking in Syria-and not only did she get the name wrong, she acted like it's still a Serious Thing long after it was revealed to be more or less a fabrication. Clearly, better to get your facts wrong while banging the drums for war than risk coming off as a wuss.

Last on this tour of terror is Iowa, where Republican state senator and former National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Joni Ernst outlined her criteria for what constitutes an acceptable US military intervention. Such an endeavor would require a "clearly defined mission, credible threat, and what is the withdrawal plan [sic]." Ernst went on to declare her support for the current anti-Islamic State campaign.

The problem is that the campaign fails to meet her stated criteria. There is no "clearly defined mission" other than to "degrade and destroy" IS-so we'll know we win when we win, or something-and there's no withdrawal plan. In fact, US officials are fairly open about the war entailing an open-ended, multi-year commitment. Ernst's rhetoric unravels upon even the slightest examination.

Her Democratic opponent, Bruce Braley, hasn't been much more reasoned. "Any time American citizens are attacked by a terrorist group, they need to be brought to justice or to the grave," he inveighed, which makes no sense. Americans are regularly assaulted the world over by people who might be characterized as "terrorists," but that doesn't mean the US all the sudden goes to war against them. Americans have been attacked by vicious Mexican drug cartels without a full-scale military conflict breaking out. Israeli Police reportedly beat an American teenager over the summer, but this didn't lead to a war against Israel. And so on and so forth.

As usual, with an election coming up soon, logic has been tossed aside in favor of doing whatever it takes to seize power. IS using Ebola as a weapon against America? Sure, why not. The only thing that's impossible to suggest in our present political climate is that we end this idiotic war.

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