BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM
It's one thing when fear of terror causes people to lose their nerve, quite another when they start losing their minds.
The Obama administration appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
It's not clear if it's terrorists, real and imagined, who have got the Democratic establishment all jittery or if it's just the usual Republican Party suspects, know-nothings in all important respects except for their uncanny ability to unnerve their Democratic rivals.
President Obama, like many a Democratic pol from the days of LBJ onward, seems spellbound by calls from the right that he be tough on terror, bullish on "free markets" and aggressive in military affairs.
So the candidate who called for peace and helping the poor instead wages war, beefs up the security bureaucracy and enables the very rich to get richer - even as ordinary folk lose their jobs, health and homes in the millions.
What we get from Mr Obama is hard to distinguish from Mr Bush, but for the improved rhetoric and a winning smile instead of a smirk.
President Obama was gracious enough to admit that the buck stops at the top, and because the buck-passing game continues as before, President Obama has implicated himself as part of the problem.
After a serious lapse in security work, another one of those classic failures to connect the dots, Mr Obama's Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed the Bush response to Katrina, saying "the system worked" when it clearly didn't.
It's a wonder she still has a job.
The only upside to the failed Christmas bombing plot was that vigilant citizens, an inept bomber and a good measure of luck saved the day.
The bomb plot understandably has put America's airlines and airports on edge, not just because a handful of terror freelancers have been whipped up to a frenzy by malevolent Islamist handlers to such a point as to "volunteer" to kill themselves in order to kill others, but because American bureaucracy is so sclerotic and inefficient that an anguished father in Nigeria could courageously plead with US authorities to beware of a son tangled up in terror, only for his plaintive cry to be ignored.
Meanwhile, a recent benign security breach of the sort that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported 2,819 cases of in the last fiscal year, has gotten undue attention from at least one Democratic bigwig desperate to appear tough on "terror".
The "terrible injustice" that permitted a foreign man, apparently intent on kissing his girlfriend goodbye, to get away with the "wrist-slapping" punishment of arrest and a standard fine for breaching a poorly-guarded perimeter at a New Jersey airport has Senator Frank Lautenberg all tied up in knots.
Sen Lautenberg, considered a "liberal" by his Democratic peers, was quick to whip up a populist response. So "outraged" was he that a foreigner could get away with such a thing, he called for Mr Jiang's visa to be cancelled.
Foaming at the mouth, he further argued that what the man did, and the message it sent out about America, had "to be seen as a terrible crime".
The hapless Jiang Haisong, a Chinese doctoral student at Rutgers University, legally resident in the US, entered the departure area of New Jersey's Newark Airport while sending off his girlfriend, presumably to spend a few last minutes together before she caught a flight to California.
Perhaps he merits the full $500 fine for his myopic act, but it was TSA negligence - a man off-duty and a broken camera left unrepaired - that made the careless romantic gesture possible, and it was TSA, not the mild-mannered geek doing a PhD in molecular science, who proceeded to lock down the airport and treat hundreds of travellers as potential terror suspects in a way that defied common sense, courtesy or respect.
Nowadays air travellers are cattle to be herded this way and that; those who dare complain are seen as troublemakers.
After Mr Jiang's arrest, the New Jersey senator started crowing louder.
"He's really an unwelcome guest," Sen Frank Lautenberg told reporters. "He should be returned to his homeland."
Media outlets with predilections to respond favourably to Sen Lautenberg's prejudiced comments piled on, with an ABC affiliate calling Mr Jiang the "most hated man in New Jersey," and a writer at NJ.com braying for a more fiercely punitive approach in "Punishment does not fit the crime".
But cooler heads prevailed, one seasoned observer noted dryly that Sen Lautenberg was really just trying to "out-Schumer Schumer" - a bit of Democratic Party-speak meaning that the New Jersey senator was trying to steal the media circus spotlight normally focused on the senator from New York.
It's a cheap shot for a man as powerful as Sen Lautenberg to pin it all on a Chinese graduate student, though it is not hard to see how such grandstanding might plug into populist antipathy for the nation of China, widely resented for its stunning economic success at a time when America is feeling down and out.
One suspects the TSA would have reacted similarly if a friend of Sen Lautenberg, or even a stray cat, had set off a system-wide alarm, though the xenophobic senator's response would almost certainly have been more muted.
Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey is not alone.
America's political class is increasingly dysfunctional, if not hopeless.
It is simply wrong to covet attention, or seek to divert attention, by picking on little people.
It's time to stop putting the public through the mill of militaristic compliance with random rules and rude abuse by the likes of Sen Lautenberg when politicians of his ilk are engaged largely in partisan political theatre without appreciable safety benefits.
But there's much to be thankful for, not just in the way vigilant citizens helped to thwart a real attack on the Detroit-bound flight, but in the extreme rarity of such attacks within US borders, despite US foreign policy being part of the problem, embroiled as it is in unpopular and politically provocative military conflict in the far corners of the globe.
America is still the richest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world, though you wouldn't know that from the way politicians are over-reacting and falling prey to fear-mongering.
Travellers in the United States have largely taken the gradual diminution of courtesy and common sense on the chin, stoic and uncomplaining for the most part, even as traditional privacies are increasingly violated and little freedoms are stripped away, one article at a time, like a full-body strip search.
Reasonable precautions are generally met with a high degree of compliance, but airports are starting to resemble armed camps to an unreasonable degree, guided by the confused and jittery politicos in Washington, who, it would seem, are willing to do anything to "win" the war on terror, even if it means losing their minds.
(published in the Bangkok Post, January 12, 2010)