You can sense it on the streets and amid your morning commute. You can see it in the eyes of your friends and neighbors. A creeping sense of resignation to occasional acts of mass terror, chalked up as the cost of doing business in a world gone mad.
This submission to the unacceptable is, in part, the result of a terrible realization that America’s elected officials do not know how to end this carnage. Indeed, after watching those supposedly endowed with the managerial competence to respond to the mass casualty attack in Orlando, that conclusion is simply inescapable. Republicans and Democrats alike quickly returned to their preferred chestnuts in the wake of this attack—all of which prescribed digging a deeper trench, barricading the door just a bit more tightly, and keeping a suspicious eye on your fellow citizen. This response to atrocity is so profoundly unsatisfying because we all know deep down that it will not work. It is disheartening, too, because it exposes the low esteem our political leaders have for our intelligence and fortitude.
Following the atrocity committed by the ISIS-sympathizer Omar Mateen at a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Democrats, including President Barack Obama, took to flailing at America’s constitutional right to own firearms. He called this massacre, in which a radicalized Islamist terrorist killed and wounded more than 100 people with a handgun and semi-automatic rifle, a “reminder” of the scourge of America’s easy access to guns. The president’s allies soon began pounding that worn old drum, beating out rote demands to impose restrictions on Americans’ access to the AR-15 “assault rifle” and restricting the right of Americans on the terror watch list from having guns.
The latter proposal, critics warn, would be to support what are likely unconstitutional restrictions on Americans who have never been convicted of a crime from having access to a fundamental right (Mateen purchased his weapons legally and passed two background checks). The former measure, these same critics insist, would be to criminalize a weapon rather than a criminal. As of 2014, an estimated 5 to 8.2 million “assault-style” (read: aesthetically similar to military rifles) weapons were in private hands in America. To brand the most popular rifle in America an instrument of purely criminal utility is to ignore the fact that the vast majority of these weapons are owned by responsible and licensed gun owners.
The brand of Republicanism represented by Donald Trump sought comfort and familiarity in its preferred empty platitudes, too. The presumptive GOP nominee returned to his most dismally popular and irresponsible platform proposal: a ban on all Muslims entering the United States from abroad. The pundit class is fond of scolding professional politicians for failing to understand the appeal of this proposal to a justifiably apprehensive public. The fact that this xenophobic and counterproductive proposition has so few proponents is a testament to the responsibility of the professional political class. Mateen was American-born and a resident of New York, not a sleeper agent or a wolf in refugee’s clothing. To call for smarter and more proactive law enforcement on suspected ISIS sympathizers like Mateen, as responsible politicians have done, is not sexy and does not stoke the fires of resentment which fuel the Trump Train. Just as most AR-15 owners are responsible, law-abiding, patriotic Americans, so, too, are most American Muslims. Again, we are unsatisfied because Trump’s prescription targets the symptoms and not the disease.
The appeal of both of these political approaches is obvious: they have the advantage of being unserious. Rejecting compromise in favor of maximalism, advocates of either proposal can posture morally righteous without ever having to demonstrate the efficacy of their approaches. This response to terror is both lazy and dangerous.
Mateen’s attack on a gay nightclub occurred almost exactly one year after another terroristic mass shooting. On June 17, Dylann Roof attacked and killed nine African-American parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina. The two massacres are similar in more ways than they are distinct. They were committed by two radicalized young men, both with an attachment to extremist ideologies and signs of mental illness, signs which their friends and relatives were afraid to treat seriously. There is one critical distinction between these two shootings. Roof was a proud anachronism. He pledged fealty to a kind of archaic white supremacism that was long ago stigmatized and banished to the most ignoble corners of Western society. He surrounded himself with the banners of defunct and defeated racist regimes; Rhodesia, Apartheid South Africa, and the Confederate States of America. He didn’t represent the vanguard of a new wave of racist violence. Mateen, however, performed his acts of violence in service to an ideology that appears ascendant.
An adherent to the most militant Islamist theology, Mateen allegedly beat his wife. He slaughtered homosexuals in a demonstration of fealty to a brand of Islamism that hurls suspected gay men from rooftops, beheads them, or hangs them in city centers. Mateen’s connections to ISIS fighters overseas are not yet fully known. As demonstrated by the attack in San Bernardino, the binary that supposedly cleaves “lone wolf” “self-radicalized” ISIS sympathizers from foreign-directed terror operations is a thin reed on which the Obama administration and its defenders have perched themselves. There is a reason why ISIS-and al-Qaeda-linked terror continues to expand across the globe, and that is because the self-described caliphate survives. It must be destroyed. A brief and spasmodic outburst of cathartic coalition airstrikes on ISIS targets won’t do the job.
By abandoning Iraq and allowing Shiite Iran to serve as the nation’s caretaker, the region’s Sunni population was thrust back into the arms of radicals. By allowing the Syrian civil war to fester, it created space for the ISIS insurgency to grow. It also thrust millions of Muslim refugees into a Western world in which many of them have no intention of integrating. The West cannot afford to allow that status quo to continue. America’s political leaders wet their finger and stick it in the air only to discover that the American public has no stomach for another prolonged expeditionary mission overseas, and they are right. The trickle of soldiers drawing up their presence in Iraq and Syria, however, betrays the compulsory nature of the Western mission to augment local forces and neutralize the Islamic State. It will not take a 100,000-soldier occupying force, but neither can a few hundred advisors carry out the objective.
As soul-crushing as the bloodshed in Orlando is, the performances turned in by American politicians in its wake are equally discouraging. They believe you want easy, antiseptic solutions to grave challenges. Maybe they’re right, but that’s not leadership. Radical Islam is an ideology. Like any ideology with which Western classical liberalism has engaged in combat before, it will not be destroyed without a full material and ideological commitment. Americans no longer have anything to fear from Nazi saboteurs attacking U.S. hydroelectric plants, nor do they need to worry about the prospect of Kamikaze attacks committed by those loyal to the Japanese emperor. These are threats that Americans neutralized, albeit at great cost and only after years of unwavering resolve.
American politicians think you don’t want to hear that. They think you will not accept those demands on you. It is simply easier to acclimatize you to a terrible new normal; one characterized by intermittent torrents of bloodshed and political leaders who perpetually flog the illusory promise of Fortress America. That grim future is unacceptable. We know what must be done. It’s past time to get about to the work of doing it.