[…] In 1950, a little-known American senator, Estes Kefauver, achieved national fame by holding televised hearings into America’s “organised crime”, drawing on blood-curdling fantasies of a Sicilian-American “mafia”. This mafia was, Kefauver claimed, holding American cities to ransom. Communities lived in fear of it. The national economy was menaced by it.
The televised hearings were at times ludicrous. One hoodlum after another was dragged to Washington to protest that all he was running was a few protection rackets on the Lower East Side. Try as Kefauver might to find a Mr Big to justify his extravagant hearings, he found only a disorganised trail of small-time hoods. He still demanded a new Washington bureaucracy to “crack down on organised crime” – and ran unsuccessfully for president. The search for “a mafia” was subcontracted to Hollywood.
Two years later another senator, Joe McCarthy, decided to exploit a different “existential” scare. His committee investigated what he claimed was the “massive” penetration of the government and military by communists and homosexuals. Fear of a spurious threat to the state was turned into a witch-hunt by McCarthy and his aide, a certain Richard Nixon. There was a red under every bed – and a blackmailer in it. McCarthy, until his mental collapse, became a national celebrity. Americans have seemed to get a frisson from being told they are threatened, perhaps because they never have been.
Likewise with Trump. The New York bomber was no more attacking America than, in Britain, Lee Rigby’s killers were “attacking Britain”. Why lend them such glory? These are pathetic groups, sometimes just individuals, committing nasty crimes. For better or worse, it happens every day. That the criminals occasionally yell, “Allahu Akbar” should be neither here nor there. That they may have travelled to the Middle East or downloaded jihadi tracts is a legitimate concern to the police. It is not a threat to the stability, let alone the existence, of the state. Yet such is the current hysteria that he is to be prosecuted for having a “weapon of mass destruction”, namely a pressure cooker.