Beware the October Surprise

Beware the October Surprise

I got out of the prediction business years ago when I brazenly told some friends that television networks would never, never, never again produce something as sleazy as Fox’s “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire.” Okay, I was wrong: mea culpa.

But I’m going to venture again into the waters of prophecy and declare that the world’s most wanted terrorist Usama bin Laden, will be captured this year.

I know for a fact that the world is full of political coincidences, but it’s not with displeasure that I write these words at Mr. bin Laden’s capture. Of course I would like to see him receive a dental exam the way Saddam Hussein did (no ideological relation, by the way) in December. Maybe even have to trudge through a ten-foot pile of excrement on his way to his cell. I don’t relish it completely though, because the spectacle of a captured bin Laden could do more to recruit a few thousand new jihadis than previously feared.

But aside from that, I’m more concerned about how Mr. bin Laden’s capture will be pure political theater. It’s a moment tailor-made for the White House, which has decided to run on a campaign theme of security and the war on terrorism (read fear) rather than that old Bush standby, the economy. The groundwork was probably laid out in Mr. Bush’s State of the Union speech, which evoked terrorism and war and Iraq and 11 September all within a few breaths of each other. We have the terrorists on the run, Mr. Bush has said, and we’re winning. Of course, he failed to mention that he needs another four years to complete the war on terrorism, but you get the idea.

The timing of Mr. bin Laden’s capture is crucial: there is a script to follow even with alleged terrorist masterminds. And end-of-the-year cliffhanger is too iffy: what if Mr. Bush doesn’t get (re)elected? And even though we talk of an October surprise, capturing Mr. bin Laden then would be viewed as too political, too calculating, and too close to the election. Before the Republican National Convention (in September in New York, no less) might be even more calculating, but it could play well to New Yorkers’ fears of terrorism, and act as a bellwether for the country at large.

I’m guessing that the summer would be the best time: it would fall between the 9/11 investigation and between the convention, to which Mr. Bush could ride to New York on an ass and be greeted as a hero: having saved the world from Saddam Hussein, the script will go, Mr. Bush with determination and grit, brought the world’s most despised Islamaniac to justice. And the heavens shall be parted and light will shine and our long national nightmare will be over. If people continue to die in Iraq, the Administration will quickly declare it to be the work of holdouts and other insurgents making a last stab at American servicemen before dying out. That line didn’t work with the capture of Saddam Hussein, but hey, it sounds good.

Speaking of the 9/11 panel, it’s unlikely that investigation will receive the 60-day extension it so desperately needs, meaning that its pitifully short timetable will conclude in May. If the report is negative in any way, the capture of Mr. bin Laden will quickly push that deep into the shadows, never to see the light of day again. The Administration will hold up the capture as proof positive that only Republicans can keep Americans safe, and in turn, a grateful public will forget everything and vote for Mr. Bush in droves. (One hopes that Democrats have been crafting their responses to this October surprise: they’d be stupid not to be doing so.) At that point, it will be a long four years because no one will be willing to criticize the Vanquisher of bin Laden without being seen as a supporter of terrorism.

If you accuse me of being cynical to the point of pathology, I’d challenge you to find a politician who hasn’t exploited 11 September to some degree. And let’s be honest, the threat of terrorism plays very well into Republican strategy -- as I’ve said, Mr. Bush outlined his election themes in his State of the Union speech. The conflation of those terrorist attacks and the invasion of Iraq has successfully resonated with scores of Americans who in times of fear and uncertainty, look to strength in whatever form. Americans will endure what they consider temporary civil liberty reductions and increased spying as long as the terrorists are running around, no matter how ephemeral the threat actually is. And the capture of the world’s most wanted evildoer will cement that exploitation for some time to come.