Every weekday, I get in my car and drive into Washington, DC to work. At other times, I eat in restaurants, go the theater and concerts, or visit museums in the city. I live less than a mile from the DC line. So, yes, I find it a bit disconcerting when ISIS releases a video promising a Paris-style attack on the city.
Do you know what I’m going to do about it? Absolutely nothing. And, that’s a good thing. The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize. That’s why we call it terrorism. I refuse to be terrorized. I refuse to change my life or spend my days looking over my shoulder. I refuse to stop doing what I did before.
The same should be true for our government and our society. I don’t want to give up our civil liberties in order to purchase a little added safety. Should we be vigilant? Of course. Should we track down and arrest or kill the terrorists? Absolutely. But in an open, liberal democracy, there is no such thing as perfect safety.
I fully expect that, sooner or later, terrorists will strike again in the United States. Americans will die. That is terrible and tragic. But, last year, more than 35,000 Americans died in auto accidents. The reality is that I’m more at risk from driving my car to work than I am from terrorists. If all we cared about was preventing deaths, we would ban cars. That we don’t, shows a proper sense of perspective.
I want a similar sense of proportion when it comes to terrorism. I don’t want the government monitoring my communications, detaining people without trial, closing mosques, or otherwise violating our civil liberties in order to fight terrorism. We can be reasonably safe – not perfectly safe, but reasonably – without making America something less than America.
Similarly, I am disturbed by the hysteria surrounding resettlement of Syrian refugees. Is it possible that a terrorist might slip in amidst the widows and orphans (only about 2 percent of Syrian refugees coming to the US are military-age men without families)? I suppose so, although there are certainly easier ways for a would-be terrorist to get here. But is that very small risk worth denying America’s heritage as a refuge for people fleeing tyranny?
Nor should the fear of terrorism become an excuse for religious bigotry. As I wrote the other day, the attack in Paris was carried out by a cult of radical islamicists. That does not mean that all Muslims are terrorists or evil, or that Islam itself is a threat. As one Facebook meme put it very well: There are 1.2 billion Muslims. If they were all terrorists, we would all be dead by now. In fact, consider that those Kurds we are all cheering for their pro-Americanism – and for retaking ISIS-claimed territory in Iraq and Syria – are Sunni Muslims. And, lest you say that moderate Muslims are not condemning these attacks – yes they are:
ISIS is not going to conquer the United States. It is dangerous, indeed barbarous, but it is not an existential threat. But it can make us change our way of like. It can make us different than the country that I love. If they do, they will have won.
Before all else, my thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of Friday’s horrendous terrorist attacks in Paris. And, not just the French. The day before the Paris attacks, suicide bombers in Beirut killed more than 40 people. The same day, a bomb at a funeral in Baghdad killed 24. And every day, terrorists murder countless numbers in Nigeria and Yemen and Syria and Bangladesh and….
Next, I speak as an educated and reasonably well-read layman. I am not an expert on military or diplomatic strategy. These are not policy areas that I work on. But, like many Americans, I have thoughts and ideas that I wish to share. Take them for what they are worth.
Let me begin, then, by disposing of some silliness – no stupidity. The attack in Paris was carried out by a cult of radical islamicists. That does not mean that all Muslims are terrorists or evil or that Islam itself is a threat. As one Facebook meme put it very well: There are 1.2 billion Muslims. If they were all terrorists, we would all be dead by now. In fact, consider that those Kurds we are all cheering for their pro-Americanism – and for retaking ISIS-claimed territory in Iraq and Syria – are Sunni Muslims. And, lest you say that moderate Muslims are not condemning these attacks – yes they are:
So, if you are among the people on my Facebook feed saying that we should nuke Mecca or shut down all the mosques, you are teetering dangerously close to idiocy.
That said, the failure of the Obama administration, the Democratic candidates for president, and certain liberal media outlets to admit that the attackers were radical islamicists is absurd. ISIS may practice a twisted medieval version of Islam, but there is no doubt that their vision of Islam is what motivates them. You cannot wage an ideological and theological battle if you don’t know – or admit — what your opponent’s ideology and theology is. Truth should not be a casualty of this war.
Second, the big question is what to do next. Like almost everyone else, I agree that “ISIS must be destroyed.” But how? The Obama administrations approach could hardly be less effective. The very fact that French warplanes struck a command and control center in Raqqa last night raises an obvious question. Why, after more than a year of US bombing, was there still a command and control center in Raqqa? The administration’s approach seems to be doing just enough to make us a target, but not enough to accomplish anything.
But what are the alternatives. “Bomb the shit out of them,” as Donald Trump says? Are we really prepared for massive civilian casualties from that type of bombing campaign. What do you do with a city that has a few thousand ISIS fighters hidden amongst tens of thousands of civilians? Are the civilians we will kill less innocent than the victims in Paris? I know and accept there will always be collateral damage during war. Sometimes its necessary. But how much are we prepared for, and what will be the blowback? Will we lose allies? Radicalize more Muslims?
Others cavalierly suggest more American troops. How many? And, recall that Vietnam started with just a few advisors. How will Iraqis and Syrians react to Americans occupying their land? And, how long must we stay there? Decades? We can conquer if we are willing to accept consequences, but then what?
Still other hawks, including Hillary Clinton and various Republicans, are calling for a No Fly Zone in Syria. But as Rand Paul pointed out in the last debate, what happens if Russians fly in our no fly zone? Are we ready to shoot down Russian planes? And what if they retaliate by shooting down ours? Do we risk war with Russia? Or do we back down – again – and look pathetically weak.
That leaves our current policy of arming and supporting allies like the Kurds and a motley array of Syrian rebels. The Kurds have done well, and I think we should arm them, but there are limits to what they can do. Syrian (and even Iraqi) Arabs have no desire to be ruled by Kurds. Sunni Muslims don’t want to be ruled by Shiites. Shiites don’t trust Sunnis. The Alawites, Druze, and other insular minorities have their own histories of ethnic hatreds. So who are our allies – and for how long? Do we decide who runs the place – or do they just fight it out?
On the other hand, I actually do think that territory matters in this war. ISIS needs its image of invincibility. It says it has reestablished the caliphate. Take that away from them, and they will be a lot less attractive to the disillusioned young people now joining them. I don’t think military options should be taken off the table. But we should recognize that there are consequences to our actions. There are always consequences.
I don’t have any answers. I have no moral objection to fighting a war (properly declared) against ISIS. I’m open to ideas about how to do this. There are many people – including many of you reading this – who know more about it than me. But, so far, much of what I’m hearing is cathartic but facile.
From those running for president, both Democratic and Republican, we need and deserve something more thoughtful.