The difference between tough talk and hanging tough

A police officer stands guard as people are evacuated after explosions rocked the airport in Brussels on Tuesday, March 22, 2016.
A police officer stands guard as people are evacuated after explosions rocked the airport in Brussels on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. The Associated Press

After Tuesday’s terrorist attack in Brussels, Donald Trump excitedly blustered that he would “close up our borders” and “do a lot more than waterboarding” to defeat the Islamic State.

There are lessons in the potent extremism that has gripped Belgium’s estranged, desperate Muslim ghettos, but just about none point to a need for more estrangement and desperation.

Closing the borders would hurt Americans, not terrorists, and torture is a war crime, not to mention counterproductive. Also, the radicals who have struck here have come mostly from inside our borders, not outside, as in Europe.

The slaughter in Belgium, days after the capture of the last perpetrator of the November attack in Paris, was less surprising, in a sense, than Friday’s arrest of Salah Abdeslam, who managed to outmaneuver Belgian intelligence for more than four months, under their noses.

But blunt state crackdowns only make such people look like heroes and martyrs. As the Republican front-runner himself might put it, only a weak, stupid leader would indulge in Trump’s ill-informed fear-mongering.

However, Tuesday’s attack does make it clear, yet again, that it matters who sits in the Oval Office. The presidency may be open to any natural-born citizen who wants to run for it, but that doesn’t mean just anyone can or should do the job.

Trump’s braying, as usual, grabbed the most headlines. But the other contenders’ responses were equally instructive.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz blamed “political correctness” for the attack and called for “law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized,” which should interest voters who prefer not to see places like Anaheim and Fremont turned into police states.

On the other hand, Ohio Gov. John Kasich called for President Barack Obama to “strengthen our alliances” and to “dig in terms of what we need to do to address the vulnerabilities we have” here. He also unnecessarily called for a “pause” in Syrian refugee admissions.

Democratic front-runner and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton expressed “solidarity with our European allies” and noted that the attack showed why NATO – which Trump airily dismissed on Monday – was “indispensable in our efforts to protect our country.” Though “there has to be some honest reckoning about what works and what doesn’t work,” she added, “we can be strong and smart without advocating torture or bigotry.”

Clinton’s rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, expressed sympathy for victims of “another cowardly attempt to terrorize innocent civilians” and similarly noted that only international cooperation will quell terrorism.

Obama, pausing from his effort to improve cooperation in Cuba, stood by the strategy he has advocated since Paris – betting that jihadi networks will be brought down by their own weak links if the West can be patient and resist portraying them as evil geniuses, as opposed to estranged, desperate opportunists.

That’s harder than it sounds. It’s also brave, given the carnage in Brussels. But it takes a real leader to get a frightened populace to hang tough.