Originally printed in the Washington Post Outlook section, Sunday, November 23, 2003

Imagine it is Election Day 2004. As you walk toward your local polling place, you can't help but notice how different this day is from past first Tuesdays in November. A Humvee bearing the markings of your local National Guard unit is stationed outside, as are guardsmen carrying assault rifles. Would-be voters glance at parked cars and passersby with palpable unease and suspicion.

A string of suicide bombings, which began on the day of the first presidential debate, has transformed the country, both on the streets and in the campaign. Of all the issues that have dominated the candidates' stump speeches, the only one that seems to matter is terrorism. The nation has been living at threat-level red for a month. The loudest voice on the campaign trail lately has been that of a terrorist leader hiding in a cave on the other side of the world. Two U.S. armored divisions are making their way toward the border of a Middle Eastern country that until quite recently we had considered a friend. This vote, it seems, will turn on a single issue: Which of the two candidates can make us safer?

Of course, the scenario I just described is speculative. We can't know whether terrorists will strike during the coming presidential campaign, the first since the beginning of the war on terrorism. Nor can we know how or where an attack may come. The terrorist bombings in Istanbul over the past week, which have taken 50 lives, make it all the more easy to imagine something similar happening here yet again. And history suggests that striking during major elections is an effective tool for terrorist groups. And it suggests that the way in which we respond will determine whether we are capable of winning this war.

Recently, I co-chaired a meeting hosted by CNBC of more than 200 senior business and government executives, many of whom are specialists in security and terrorism related issues. Almost three-quarters of them said it was likely the United States would see a major terrorist strike before the end of 2004. A similar number predicted that the assault would be greater than those of 9/11 and might well involve weapons of mass destruction. It was the sense of the group that such an attack was likely to generate additional support for President Bush. These are serious people, not prone to hysteria or panic -- military officers, policymakers, scientists, researchers and others who have studied such issues for a long time. They know that in country after country, elections have held an irresistible lure for terrorists. In Israel, Colombia, Russia, Sri Lanka, Spain, Turkey and elsewhere, recent elections have been disrupted by strikes designed to commandeer the spotlight, to derail democracy, or to discredit or perhaps inflame a political leader.

Even in this country, there is at least one notable example of a contest that was altered by anti-American radicals. When we go to the polls next November it will be 25 years after Iranian militants captured U.S. diplomats in Tehran and began the hostage crisis that dominated the 1980 election and helped bring down President Jimmy Carter.

From the perspective of the terrorist, attacking in an election year makes perfect sense. The objective of terrorism is not so much to strike a blow against a particular physical target as it is to strike a psychological blow against a target audience. That is why terrorists will often hit symbolic targets such as the World Trade Center or conduct "message" strikes on buses or sidewalk cafes to suggest that no one is safe. Elections heighten the stakes because a blow during an election is a blow against a society's political foundations. Elections also enable terrorists to lash out more directly at individual political figures and to do so in a highly visible way.

Understanding this does more than simply prepare us for what is likely. It can help us to react in a more constructive way. We can, for example, begin by recognizing that we are engaged not in a traditional war in which strategic targets are the top priority of an enemy with a real hope of defeating us. Rather, we are locked in a conflict in which the "casualty count" extends to the psyches damaged, the emotional wounds inflicted, the social and political unrest that is fomented. This is not to minimize the lives lost, it is merely to say that they are in many ways secondary objectives for the terrorist.

With this in mind, we should recognize that we do ourselves a disservice when we overly emphasize the protection of our "hard assets" when setting our homeland security priorities. Of course, we need to do what we can to deter bad guys from hijacking planes or attacking nuclear power facilities. But America is a country of infinite targets. Game theory suggests that by defending one target, we simply redirect the attention of the committed terrorist to another that is left exposed. Perhaps worst of all, disproportionate focus on hard assets creates an expectation that success in the war on terrorism is the absence of attacks, the success of our preventive efforts. But if absolute success is an impossibility then such an expectation only makes us more vulnerable to the type of shock and disappointment that can lead us to over-react and then miscalculate -- responses that ultimately serve the terrorists' objectives. That is why hardening our psychological assets needs to be an even higher priority than protecting our physical assets.

One way to do that is to recognize that terrorism is a constant risk, not a single event. In England, India, the Philippines and elsewhere, citizens' psychological assets have become hardened by bitter experience: Terrorism is simply something that people train themselves to live with.

So, in the event of a major attack on American interests between now and the election, how should our political leaders react? As we saw from the Iran hostage crisis, a president who appears weak, obsessed or unable to respond effectively can be severely damaged politically by the outside manipulation of our political process. The candidates need to exhibit measured, responsible strength and, ideally, should be able to show that the policies they have articulated anticipate the new circumstances.

How would an attack affect the race? In case after case, assaults before major votes have benefited candidates who were seen as tougher on terrorists. In Israel in 1996, for instance, Labor Party leader Simon Peres held a 25-to-30 point lead over his Likud rival Binyamin Netanyahu. Then suicide bombings claimed more than 60 lives in four weeks. Peres was widely seen as the more conciliatory candidate, and Netanyahu won. In 2002, when 11 Israelis died in a Jerusalem bombing, hard-liner Ariel Sharon was elected. Similarly, in Russia, Vladimir Putin's stance against Chechen terrorists was widely credited with his presidential win in 2000. In Turkey, in 1999, Bulent Ecevit cited violence and the threat of unrest in his country from Islamic-led political opponents; he jailed them and won. In Sri Lanka, when President Chandrika Kumaratunga, known for her tough stance against Tamil Tiger terrorists, was wounded in a pre-election attack, her flagging political fortunes were revived and she, too, won.

This long list of examples begs a question: Terrorists, too, can see that hard-liners tend to win after terrorist attacks. So why would they want to help them win? Perhaps because terrorists see the attacks as a win-win. They can lash out against their perceived enemies and empower the hard-liners, who in turn empower them as terrorists. How? Hard-liners strike back more broadly, making it easier for terrorists as they attempt to justify their causes and their methods. This in turn suggests that while terrorists must be combated, a measured public response is more effective than an impulsive or ill-conceived military response (however emotionally satisfying) that is likely to produce unnecessary collateral damage, political or otherwise.

We should remember that what attackers seek most is to damage our national prestige and that to the extent that we do the same, we are doing the terrorist's bidding.

Is it reasonable to expect political leaders to respond to terrorism in a way that is tough but thoughtful, a way that enables us to strike at our enemies without fueling support for them? Once again, we might turn abroad for an answer. Last year, when Alvaro Uribe ran for president of Colombia, he maintained the tough anti-terrorist line that one might expect of a man whose father was kidnapped and killed by rebels. Uribe was attacked during the campaign. On one occasion, a bomb was detonated beneath his car, killing bystanders. But he refused to be inflamed, saying, "I hold no bitterness. I just want to serve Colombia."

Uribe won. His approach to rebels and terrorists is cool and professional but also deliberate and tough. His policies don't change with each attack. Today, in an era of military rapid response and a 24-hour news cycle, steadiness like that requires keeping a clear eye on priorities. Colombia, under Uribe, has succeeded at this in a way that the United States, after 9/11, did not.

In the months after the attacks, other issues seemed to fade from our national consciousness. We decided to wage and then expand a war, create a new Cabinet department, expend great fortunes and embark on a radical new foreign policy of unilateralism -- all without much national debate. Once seemingly vital issues such as federal fiscal responsibility were ignored. As a result, we now have the largest budget deficit in history. That should teach us that even if our attention is diverted by an attack, such an attack should not be seen as a transforming event. We should recognize that our international strength flows from our domestic vitality -- and that a nation with burgeoning deficits is more vulnerable to any number of challenges. In short, post-attack emotion should not be seen as a license for excess, even if that response can win momentary political support.

Assessing terrorism among, but not above, our other priorities won't be easy. Especially not the day after. But you can't fight a war or manage a democracy as if every attack were Pearl Harbor. Nor can we fight alone what is clearly a global problem. The fact that other nations have long dealt with terrorism, and continue to, offers us evidence that spasmodic, violent responses to violence are not productive. And their example offers us hope that through a resolute, international effort there can be an end both to the war on terrorism and to this era of wrenching uncertainty.