Confronting Terror

by Michael Sean Winters

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The attacks in San Bernardino, following on the attacks in Paris, have forced Americans and our allies to question how we combat ISIS, and other terrorists, without sacrificing the very freedom of our societies that we rightly prize.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Eugene Robinson lauded the “bravery” of President Obama in admitting that Islamicist terrorism is “a cancer that has no immediate cure” in his Oval Office address Sunday night. I suppose this admission is a form of political bravery: Americans like solutions to problems, and the simpler the solution the better. Confronting that taste for a simple answer, when such an answer would be ineffective or even counter-productive, is certainly the stuff of political leadership. President Obama is certainly correct that there are many things America and its allies could do that would make the situation worse, such as sending large numbers of combat troops back into Iraq, which seems to be exactly what ISIS wants.

That said, it is a little hard to stomach hearing this president stake out high moral ground, especially when the discussion turns to the plight of Syrian refugees. Had the president instituted a no-fly zone in Syria years ago, there would be far fewer refugees for the president to wax eloquent about. Helicopter gunships have a way of creating vast numbers of refugees, and the criminal regime of Bashir al-Assad put those gunships to evil use. The administration was more than slow to recognize the rise of ISIS as the threat that it was, and has done precious little to seriously put them on the defensive, even with airstrikes, in Syria and Iraq.

Next to Robinson’s column in the Post was Michael Gerson’s. Gerson is, hands down, the most thoughtful conservative commentator on any op-ed page. But, this passage showed a certain naivete about the threat posed by ISIS. He wrote: “The president should convene his security team and ask: What would it take to degrade the Islamic State’s capabilities to strike in the West within one year? And to defeat it completely in two?” The first question is appropriate. The second shows that Gerson fails to realize that the current struggle, which is mostly a struggle within Islam, is at least a generational struggle. ISIS might be defeated in two years, although I doubt it, but others would fill the void of radicalism. We have been in Afghanistan since 2001, and the Soviets were there before us, and the Brits were there long before that. No modern power has figured out how to pull that country into the eighteenth century let alone the twenty-first. The only sophistication the mullahs want is the sophistication of armaments.

Dreadful as the killings in Paris and San Bernardino were, the truth is that the war within Islam, the decision whether to pursue a peaceful or a warlike path into the future, is a war in which America is not in a starring role, unless we were to reinsert our military into the region, which would be a colossal mistake. The dead in Paris and San Bernardino are what the military calls “collateral damage” when the dead are Iraqis or Afghans, and let us be clear: Many, many Muslims died when America went into those two countries. Did we think there would be no consequent resentments?

Donald Trump has an answer to the killings in San Bernardino and Paris: He wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. It is not often that one sees an American politician’s ideas labeled “fascist” but even Republicans were using that term yesterday. In an email exchange with a priest friend yesterday, I noted, riffing on a comment Leon Wieseltier made about Ross Perot back in 1992, that while Trump is no Nazi, one suspects he and Mussolini would have talked long into the night. From the “Great Minds Think Alike” file, this morning, Dana Milbank also compares Trump to Il Duce.

Trump’s fascist tendencies are full-blown, but his fellow GOP contenders tend to be a bit shy about calling him out, and they offer proposals that are less obviously obnoxious to American values and the rule of law, but not my much. They know what he knows: There are lots of GOP primary voters out there who think banning all Muslims is a fine idea. I was delighted to see the Rev. Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, criticizing Trump on the cable shows yesterday and I hope his fellow pastors will be doing the same from their pulpits this week. I have yet to see a statement from the USCCB. You can bet if Obama had said what Trump has said, they would have a statement out within minutes.

Americans do not like confronting a problem about which there is not a lot that can be done. Let me rephrase: There is a lot that can be done in terms of better intelligence, more forceful diplomacy with the Saudis to get them to stop exporting the radical theology that is at the root of most Islamicist radicalism, and better surveillance at home, something which may make the civil libertarians nuts, but it is time for Obama to tell Americans that, yes, we will have to sacrifice a penny of privacy for a dime’s worth of security. But, in this gun-drenched culture, there is very little we can do to stop a self-radicalized killer from going into an office or a shopping mall or a school and killing lots of people, whether that self-radicalized killer is a racist shooting up a South Carolina church or a Muslim killing co-workers at a holiday party in California. And, there is probably even less we can do about the situation in the Mideast beyond trying to contain the carnage.

A final thought: There is one other thing we can do, and that is not forget who we are. The terrorists cannot ultimately destroy us unless we participate in the destruction. Nazi Germany controlled the largest country and the most robust economy in Europe in 1939 and, within the year, its empire stretched across most of Europe. That was an existential threat. The terrorists can only win is we let ourselves be terrorized into becoming something we are not. They may use assault rifles, but fear is their real weapon. One man stood up that fear this week, Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis. Despite political pressure, he helped resettle a Syrian refugee family through Catholic Charities. +Tobin said that helping refugees is “an essential part of our identity as Catholic Christians, and we will continue this life-saving tradition.” Can I hear an Amen!

The Church began its Year of Mercy yesterday. The power of prayer is not to be scoffed at. The power of personal witness, as seen in that image of the pope in the Central African Republic, inviting the imam to ride in the popemobile with him, this is not to be scoffed at. Reaching out to encounter our Muslim brothers and sisters, so that they can give the lie to the Islamicist propaganda, is not to be scoffed at. And, standing up to the fascists in our midst is a must. 

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