The terror strike in Madrid has evoked a nightmare scenario in which catastrophic terror could be used to undermine the legitimacy of democratic elections by attacking them at their weakest spot, namely, the popular elections. What no government could afford to do as deliberate policy an entire nation may do by visceral impulse, namely, hand the terrorists victory after victory -- and all in the name of democracy.
In a response to this European nightmare scenario, Andre Gluckman in an Op Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal has argued that elections in Europe could be postponed in the case of a terror strike. This is certainly a reasonable proposal in the European context, where parliamentary democracy is the rule, but it does not take into consideration the peculiar nature of American national elections, the date of which is permanently fixed by the United States Constitution itself. Hence any attempt to postpone an election after a catastrophic terror strike would be meet with an immediate obstacle: Who is authorized to make such a postponement?
The problem here is one that we should be familiar with from the Election Crisis of 2000, when various suggestions were made to redo the original election, or to break the tie through the flip of coin, as Stephen Jay Gould argued at the time. All perfectly reasonable, and yet all perfectly impossible, since there was no authority to decide on such purely ad hoc solutions to the problem that was facing us.
Thus, if the United States is to be prepared for such a possibility, it must be clear before an election strike occurs how we are going to respond to it, and, just as importantly, it must also be clear that everyone is willing to respond to it in the same way. It is not enough to have a solution beforehand; it is equally necessary that both parties, the Republicans and the Democrats have signed off on such a solution.
This could be done through a Constitutional Amendment -- a Terror Amendment -- that would specify in advance what should be done in the case of a catastrophic terror strike on the eve of or even during a national election in the United States. Such an amendment might arrange a way to postpone the election, or it might reaffirm that that no event, however disruptive, could alter the outcome of an election that occurred on the Constitutionally assigned date.
But here the question arises, Do we have enough time to pass such an amendment, and the answer is almost certainly no.
This leaves only one fool proof solution, and that is for all parties to the election to announce ahead of time, in language that is absolutely binding, that an election held even under the most catastrophic terror attack, including nuclear bombs, would be regarded as valid, and that there would be no dispute about this.
But there is one quite serious objection to this proposal. Terror strikes will almost certainly occur in big cities, thereby intimidating far more urban voters than suburban and rural ones, and thus systematically scaring off more Democrats than Republicans -- a fact that any Democratic strategist would notice in a heart beat. This means that, in the event of a terror strike, it will inevitably be in the interest of the Democratic Party to postpone the election until they believe that the Democratic turnout will no longer be disproportionately effected by anxiety concerning further attacks, while, by the exact same demographic logic, it will always be in the interest of the Republican Party not to postpone an election under similar circumstances.
Such partisan division automatically guarantees that a major strike on the eve or morning of the election would be a political disaster as well as a human one. It would instantly create a controversy about the legitimacy of the man "elected" President under such circumstances, thus raising the curtains to a peculiarly American nightmare scenario that might be billed, "9/11 Meets the son of Election Crisis 2000." If hanging chads could bring us so close to the brink of political chaos, imagine what another 9/11 on election morning could do to us?
So how do we cope with this?
We can simply dismiss it as unlikely, and try to put it out of our mind. Or we can realize how vulnerable democracies can become when parties are bitterly divided against each other, and each is out to win no matter how much of the common good must be sacrificed in the process. The terrorists now dominate the politics of the world because they have astutely profited from the divisions of the West, transforming arguments about how to deal with the threat of terror into reasons for bickering among ourselves. They have even succeeded in doing the same thing in the United States, where Democrats and Republicans are bitterly feuding over who should have known what when.
The terrorists cannot realistically hope to defeat us militarily; but they can realistically hope to defeat us politically -- and they can hope for this because our own bitter domestic division has given them grounds for this hope.