When it comes to terrorism, much of our political leadership appears to have lost both its nerve and its mind. Consider this statement: “I’m worried that too many people, both in politics and out, don’t appreciate the seriousness of the threat to American security and the evil of the enemy that faces us — more evil, or as evil, as Nazism, and probably more dangerous than the Soviet Communists we fought during the long cold war.”

These words were not uttered by an involuntary resident of a mental hospital, or Mel Gibson after a night of perusing “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and drinking single malt scotch, but by Joseph Lieberman, a man who has been a senator for the past 18 years, and who came within a handful of dangling chads of becoming vice president of the United States.

That a statement like this is treated as a reasonable observation rather than denounced as transparently hysterical nonsense indicates the extent to which hysterical nonsense now passes for clear-eyed statesmanship. And that should be far more frightening to Americans than any terrorist threat.

At the height of the cold war, the Soviet Union’s explicit goal was to establish a global communist dictatorship. In the pursuit of this goal, the Soviets built an army of six million men, equipped with, among many other things, 10,000 nuclear weapons, which in a matter of minutes could have wiped the United States off the face of the earth, while killing perhaps 150 million Americans.

By contrast, Osama bin Laden is a guy hiding in a cave somewhere, armed with an AK-47 and a tape recorder, who commands the uncertain allegiance of a few thousand equally poorly armed fanatics.

As for our current enemies being “more evil” than Nazis, it’s hard to imagine what that could even mean. The Nazis managed to murder perhaps 10 million people, while starting a war that killed at least 40 million others. In the universal evil sweepstakes, they set a mark that will be hard to match, although it’s worth noting that our current good friend and international banker, the People’s Republic of China, made an impressive effort of its own during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Lieberman and his new best friend, Dick Cheney, would respond that the enemy isn’t just al Qaeda: it’s something called “Islamofascism.” According to this view, despite the enormous political and religious differences that divide them, groups such as al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Iraqi insurgents, and the governments of Iran and Syria, are all part of one big terrifying conspiracy to kill each and every American because They Hate Our Freedoms.

Of course, during the cold war the enemy wasn’t just the U.S.S.R., or our new best friends the Red Chinese, it was the International Communist Conspiracy. Yet for all the paranoia that marked the Red Scare, fear of the Soviet Union and international communism was far more rational than the current panic over al Qaeda and “Islamofascism.”

At this moment Osama bin Laden must be howling with laughter. He’s a man with no armies to command or weapons to brandish, except for the most powerful weapon of all: fear. More Americans drown in bathtubs every year than are killed by terrorists — and indeed we’ve now reached the point where bin Laden doesn’t actually have to kill anyone to achieve his goal of promoting military conflict between the Islamic and Western worlds.

Bin Laden and his ilk are merely taking advantage of the politics of cowardice. For example, according to the statement President Bush made on the morning of last week’s arrest of terrorist suspects in London, the goal of the war against “Islamic fascists” is to make Americans “completely safe.”

That absurdities of this sort still play well in the polls is a sad comment on the state of the nation.

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)