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If the Republicans running for president were a school system, they'd be Los Angeles, so scared of terrorists, real or faux, they'll reflexively take extreme action whether it is warranted or not. Actually, that comparison isn't fair. In California, such fearfulness merely involves shutting down schools, which is an inconvenience but hardly a tragedy. During their debate in Las Vegas Tuesday night, the candidates showed a willingness to go much further — killing innocent family members of terrorists, firing at Russian jets over Syria, carpet bombing Middle Eastern cities until the sand "glowed" and sending untold numbers of ground troops into harm's way for who knows how long.

Donald Trump may be the leading blusterer and unmatched in his level of Islamophobia, given his unwillingness to retreat from his recent call for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, but he had plenty of company in the sabre-rattling department. That "serious" candidates (to use a favorite phrase of former Gov. Jeb Bush) could so easily accept civilian casualties and presumably violate the Geneva Convention (as Sen. Rand Paul helpfully pointed out) in the name of being "tough" was nothing short of mind-boggling.

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Americans are scared, admittedly. But do they really want this level of xenophobia and extremism? If Mr. Trump's poll numbers weren't troubling enough, his fellow frontrunners, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are doing well with chicken-hawk promises, too. Not to be outdone, Ben Carson was talking tough, as well, rattling off Cold War era weapons programs that he intends to pour billions of dollars into so they'll be shiny and new. Yes, that's what America needs right now, renewed investment in its nuclear triad of missiles, long-range bombers and submarines — as soon as Senator Rubio explains to Mr. Trump what a "triad" means.

Of course, perhaps we'll need those strategic weapons now that so many candidates are ready to enforce a Syrian no-fly zone against the Russians. In one of the evening's testier exchanges, Senator Paul identified Gov. Chris Christie as the "World War III" candidate for his total commitment to shooting at the Russian warplanes no matter the geopolitical consequences. And the senator added this sharp little zinger in reference to the infamous closing of the George Washington Bridge in 2013: "When we think about the judgment of someone who might want World War III, we might think about someone who might shut down a bridge because they don't like their friends." Ouch.

Isn't foreign policy and national defense supposed to be a Republican strength? What Tuesday's debate revealed is a party teetering on the edge of madness. Gone are the days when President George W. Bush could, just days after the 9/11 attacks, describe the Muslim faith as "good and peaceful" and make clear the U.S. was not at war with a religion but with a "radical network of terrorists" who "blaspheme the name of Allah." Apparently, that kind of rational discourse and appeal to our better natures would disqualify him from consideration in 2016.

The candidates like to mock President Barack Obama for understating the threat posed by ISIS, but it is they who have collectively gone around the bend in the opposite direction. The actual risk of an any Westerner dying at the hands of a terrorist remains strikingly low — add together the losses in Paris and San Bernardino (144) and then double them and it still falls short of Baltimore's murder tally for the year. If the point of terrorism is to terrify disproportionately, the leading candidates seem to be, whether intentionally or not, doing the terrorists' job for them. The biggest risk posed by terrorism isn't an ISIS attack on Americans, it's Boko Haram in Africa, and the victims are far more likely to be Muslims than Christians.

The thought that there might be terrorists in our midst can be frightening — that much we know well given how the FBI recently arrested an Edgewood man with ties to ISIS — but the kind of aggressive rhetoric that came out of Vegas Tuesday was far scarier. How quickly most of these folks would toss out constitutional protections and embrace tactics like killing innocent family members of terrorists in the name of getting "much tougher." Maybe "fear sells," as some strategists have suggested, but as the Vegas debate demonstrated, the fearmongering has gotten way out of hand.

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