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updated 7/13/2004 12:24:27 AM ET 2004-07-13T04:24:27

Only the silhouette of the reported al Qaeda plan to disrupt the November 2004 elections is known to us— and even it is known to precious few of us. And if that’s all we know, how could we possibly know with what in end in mind, they would seek to disrupt our elections?

3/11 in Madrid
After 3/11— the atrocities along the Madrid commuter lines in March— Spanish voters quickly turned out an American-friendly, pro-Iraq-war government. The mourners in Spain’s streets were not merely solemn, they were angry. Their perception was of a Spanish government that had ignored popular opinion and allied the country with the Coalition in Iraq, even though a large percentage of citizens— in some polls, a vast majority— had opposed it.

It may be too subtle for the murderous minds of al Qaeda’s evil men to comprehend, but they may not have influenced the Spanish election at all.

And as Spain is not the United States, nor are Spanish politics, American politics. If anybody,  al Qaeda included, assumes the results of Madrid are a template for what would happen in the event of a pre-election attack here, they show they know even less of our society than we think they do.

And our perceptions of such an attack here are similarly clouded.

It is widely assumed on the far right that al Qaeda would intend to force Americans into some kind of automatic, cowering repudiation of the current government. “Why,” some conservatives have asked, “would the terrorists want John Kerry to win?”

But it is widely assumed on the far left that an Al-Qaeda attack would in fact guarantee the re-election of the current government.

9/11 and New York
The political events in the wake of 9/11 would suggest that the second view might be closer to reality. In New York City, where voting had already begun in the Democratic mayoral primary on the morning of the attacks, the entire event was postponed without incident or complaint.

But moreover, there was an immediate, in many cases bi-partisan, groundswell in the city to somehow extend the tenure of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

With Giuliani scheduled to be forced out of office at year’s end, barred from seeking re-election due to term limits, there were efforts to change or suspend those limits in time to let Giuliani seek another term.

Even when those efforts failed, Giuliani himself suggested a delay of the new mayor’s inauguration until March of 2002.

But that was followed by two curious and seemingly mutually exclusive political events: While Democratic candidates who recoiled in horror at the thought of a postponed transfer of power lost considerable political capital, at the same time, the sense of the necessity of Giuliani’s continued presence began to abate.

By the time of the actual election of his successor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the “Keep Rudy” talk all but vanished. In less than two months.

Nearly three years later, New York state has done nothing to change term-limits. Not even during emergencies.

Ultimately, even 9/11, did nothing to seriously disrupt our elections, or our government.

Election of 1864
Nationally, we have no recent history to turn to. The obvious parallel is the election of 1864, and it is ancient and profoundly different.

Despite more than three years of Civil War, the Presidential election—the re-election of Abraham Lincoln—was conducted without incident. Of course, with the few exceptions like Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, voting took place only in areas in which the impact of the war had been psychological, not physical.

But the outcome was clearly affected by the war. In late summer, Republicans proposed dumping Lincoln from their ticket. He confessed he expected to be “beaten, and badly beaten.” The Peace Democrats, led by former Union general-in-chief George McClellan, were ready to take office, and ready to cut a deal with the South.

And then General William Tecumseh Sherman captured, evacuated, and burned Atlanta.

Lincoln was reelected in a landslide.

Contentious presidential election
Perhaps the real guide to the supposed “disruption” of American elections, the guide one wishes could be slipped under Al-Qaeda’s doorstep and studied carefully, comes to us from the very recent past: Exactly three years and seven months ago tonight, the most contentious presidential election in more than a century— a period of uncertainty, universal charges of fraud, accusations of the politicizing of the court system, and inaugural preparations by both major candidates— ended.

A president was sworn in, right on time, on the 20th of January.

“Disrupting our electoral process,” no matter how much devious and evil intent might be harnessed to effect it, would still seem to be… much harder than it looks.

This was Monday's No. 5 story on "Countdown with Keith Olbermann." The show airs weeknights, 8 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

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