On the heels of the controversy about this week’s perhaps terror alerts in Europe, I reflected on a recent experience with the very real costs of what you might call the terrorist-hysteria complex.
Two weeks ago, I was in Afghanistan on a U.S. government-sponsored mission to observe the Parliamentary elections on Saturday, September 18th. The day before, I sat on the balcony of our guesthouse and watched a dangerous drama unfold just outside. Our security guards strung a black curtain along our balcony rail to block prying eyes. Through two of the panels, I watched as a member of the Afghan National Police crouched behind a wall of olive-green sandbags about a hundred feet away and aimed his automatic rifle at a curve in the road to the right.
We were in Panjshir, a valley about two and a half hours north of Kabul. At that moment, a mullah up the road was leading a protest at an elementary school in response to the burning of a Koran by by two men in Tennessee named Bob Old and Danny Allen. (This was different from Terry Jones, the Florida preacher who canceled his burning.)
You probably never heard about the Tennessee story. When you watch the video, it’s mind-blowing that these two characters somehow animated events oceans away. But seven thousand miles away, amped up both by a local hair-trigger media and Afghan opportunists looking to stir up trouble, Bob Old and Danny Allen — names we will almost certainly never hear again — created real danger and real expense.
On the mission with me were two security professionals from the UK and the U.S., two Afghan security men, a translator, and my partner, all funded by a U.S. aid agency and U.S. taxpayer dollars. We were supposed to be out in the field, interviewing government officials, asking probing questions about the quality of the election, the depth of the rule of law. I should have been helping to determine whether the billions of dollars and gallons of blood our warfighters have poured into Afghanistan is worth it.
But we instead spent the day stuck in our guest house, pawns in the mad world of stunt-driven politics. There was a striking parallel between the stunts back in America and the Taliban’s efforts in Afghanistan. Both were aimed at controlling the actions of millions through discrete acts of violence. Both take advantage of the nexus of blogs, a 24-hour news cycle, and political opportunism. And both have real consequences not only on our perception of reality, but on policy.