REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Opinion writer

When important events occur during the presidential campaign, we can get some sense of how the candidates would act if they were in the Oval Office. They don’t have the ability to do anything about a financial crisis or a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, but at least we can watch what they say and what instincts seem to be driving them. Over the weekend, a bomb went off in New York and another was located in Elizabeth, New Jersey and detonated by a bomb squad robot; officials now believe that the same individual, who is now in custody, might have set both devices.

So how did the candidates react, and what does that say about what their presidencies might bring?

In the statement Hillary Clinton gave this morning, she mentioned that she has been part of the decision-making process on fighting terrorism in the past, stressed the importance of the federal government working with local law enforcement, and called for an “intelligence surge” to combat terrorism. But this was the heart of her message:

“Let us be vigilant, but not afraid. We have faced threats before. If you see something or you hear something, report it immediately to local law enforcement authorities. I know we will meet this new danger with the same courage and vigilance. We choose resolve, not fear. We will not turn on each other or undermine our values. We’ll stand together because we are stronger together in the face of this threat and every other challenge.”

You’ll notice how she worked her campaign slogan in there at the end. And how did Donald Trump react? He called into Fox & Friends this morning to take credit for the fact that while other politicians were doing what officials almost always do in cases like this — speak carefully at first about the incident — he told a crowd that the device in New York was a “bomb” as soon as he heard the news. In this case that turned out to be true, but Trump wanted praise, as though saying so demonstrated his extraordinary and unique genius. He actually mentioned that Clinton had used the word “bombing” in her initial statement, but nevertheless preened, “What I said was exactly correct. I should be a newscaster because I called it before the news.”

Weirdly enough, the dingbats who host that program actually pressed Trump for some specifics. When Trump said, “We’re going to have to do something extremely tough over there,” Steve Doocy asked, “Like what?” Trump responded:

“Like knock the hell out of them. And we have to get everybody together and we have to lead for a change because we’re not knocking them, we’re hitting them every once in a while, we’re hitting them in certain places, we’re being very gentle about it, we’re going to have to be very tough.”

Of course, this is complete nonsense; if Trump had read a newspaper in the last six months, he might have learned that ISIS is rapidly losing ground in Iraq and Syria, both because of stepped-up military action from the U.S. and from the efforts of our allies in the region. Over the long term, battlefield success will diminish the likelihood of ISIS-inspired attacks here at home, but in the short term, those attacks are extremely difficult to stop, particularly when they come from “lone wolves” who aren’t part of a group that can be infiltrated or have its communications intercepted.

Yet Trump is convinced that local police forces literally know the identity of nearly every potential terrorist in America, yet refuse to investigate them because they’re afraid of being criticized for being politically incorrect. “Our local police, they know who a lot of these people are,” he told Fox & Friends, echoing comments he has made many times before. “They are afraid to do anything about it because they don’t want to be accused of profiling. And they don’t want to be accused of all sorts of things.”

Of course, if someone has actually given police reasons to think they might be involved in terrorism, then investigating them is not “profiling.” Profiling involves targeting people not because of specific information, but because of their characteristics — like, say, you’re a Muslim man under the age of 40. But I suspect that when Trump says that police “know who a lot of these people are,” that’s what he means — just round up “these people,” and you’ll solve the problem.

President Obama also spoke about these incidents today, and what he said sounded a lot like what Hillary Clinton said. Here’s part of it:

“At moments like this, I think it’s important to remember what terrorists and violent extremists are trying to do. They are trying to hurt innocent people, but they also want to inspire fear in all of us and disrupt the way we live to undermine our values. And so even as we have to be vigilant and aggressive, both in preventing senseless acts of violence, but also making sure that we find those who carry out such acts and bring the to justice, we all have a role to play as citizens in making sure that we don’t succumb to that fear. And there’s no better example of that than the people in New York and New Jersey.

“When I was speaking to Governor Cuomo, Governor Christie, and Mayor de Blasio, one point that they all made is, folks around here, they don’t get scared. They’re tough, they’re resilient, they go about their business every single day. That kind of toughness and resoluteness, and the recognition that neither individuals nor organizations like ISIL can ultimately undermine our way of life, that’s the kind of strength that makes me so proud to be an American, and that’s the kind of strength that is going to be absolutely critical not just in the days to come but in the years to come. By showing those who want to do us harm that they will never beat us, by showing the entire world that as Americans we do not and never will give in to fear, that’s going to be the most important ingredient in us defeating those who would carry out terrorist acts against us.”

The contrast between Obama and Clinton on one hand and Trump on the other couldn’t be more stark. The Democrats locate things like strength and resolve in the American public, and describe them as critical to our success. Trump seldom talks about how ordinary people can or should react to terrorism, other than to say that people are afraid and they should be, because more attacks are coming. Whenever Trump talks about strength, it’s about his own. Only he, through his intellectual brilliance and steely spine, can defeat terrorism on our behalf; the citizenry’s job is to cower for a while, then emerge to gaze in wonder at the paradise Trump has created.

In practical terms, there are stark differences between what the candidates would do about terrorism Clinton’s plan (which you can read here is essentially to continue what we’re doing now. The best argument in its favor is that not only is ISIS steadily losing, but even with a few dramatic attacks in recent years, we’ve had extraordinary success in keeping Americans safe here at home. Since September 11, Americans have literally been more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a jihadi terrorist.

Trump, on the other hand, wants to encourage the use of racial profiling at all levels of law enforcement, ban Muslims from entering the United States, and “knock the hell of them” in the Middle East. Perhaps the best we can hope for out of him is that when he gathers the Joint Chiefs together and says, “All right, fellas, here’s my new order: Knock the hell out of ISIS,” they’ll look awkwardly at one another until someone says, “Yes sir, we’ll get right on that,” then they’ll continue what they’re already doing. President Trump will then call in to Fox & Friends to explain how his brilliant military strategy finally defeated terrorism.