Since the latest spate of terror attacks on Saturday, everyone has been arguing over the efficacy of the government’s response. Jim Geraghty has an excellent breakdown of the competing viewpoints here. Basically, there’s an argument that the system actually worked; after the first bomb went off, the terrorist was quickly identified and apprehended without further loss of life. Sure, the FBI got a tip that the guy was a terrorist beforehand, but the FBI gets about 1,000 terrorism tips a day. If it had the manpower to chase every one of these down thoroughly, it would be such a massive and intrusive agency that it would change the whole country as we know it.
On the other hand, the pro-Trump forces seem to focus mostly on the fact that officials waited some time before calling it terrorism (the gall), and, of course, for missing the leads that might have led them to the attackers in the first place.
As a result of these two approaches, the two candidates seem to be taking diametrically different approaches to Islamic terrorism as a campaign issue. Hillary seems to mostly pretend that it doesn’t happen or that isn’t connected to a larger, systemic problem. The follies of this approach are self-evident to readers of this site (I hope), and I won’t rehash them here. Trump’s, on the other hand, seems to be to promise that he knows some secret solution that will either totally or almost totally eliminate the problem.
For anyone who thinks Trump might actually deliver on this promise, it’s time to seriously recalibrate your expectations. Ever since (at least) the French-Algerian War, Islamic insurgents have gotten the message that a prolonged campaign of domestic terrorism is basically a magical Rubik’s cube that the West has yet to solve. They have seen again and again that Western countries – especially the United States – can be bent to the will of a relentless campaign of terror. And in cases where they haven’t succeeded in getting their will (such as in Israel) they have displayed what looks like a virtually inexhaustible will to continue trying.
The Islamic terrorists have noticed us now, and so here we are. They aren’t going away. As a country, every time we undertake a foreign policy endeavor anywhere in the world, we have to develop a reasonable timeline and determine whether we are willing to endure a terror campaign that opposes it for the duration, because one is definitely coming. Obviously, like Israel, we aren’t going to just curl up and die or or surrender our homeland, so we face the reality that, for the foreseeable future, a legion of fanatics who are willing to surrender their own lives will be attempting to cause us to constantly live in fear through a series of domestic terror attacks, executed with varying levels of competence.
That is not to say that our government should not be judged henceforth on its ability to prevent as many of these attacks as possible. Part of that evaluation ought to include the extent to which the effort infringes upon the ability of everyday Americans to live their lives without government intrusion, free from needlessly excessive government snooping. One guy puts a bomb in his shoe and millions of Americans have to remove their shoes to board an airplane for all perpetuity (apparently) – is this a smart policy? On the other hand, everyone freaks out about the NSA collecting phone metadata and deep-sixed the program, when it might well have helped catch wind of some of these plots – should we re-examine some of the libertarian anti-tech surveillance pushback? And so on and so on.
I think there’s even a place for an intelligent discussion about some of the things Trump brings up in connection with this issue – although Trump is definitely the wrong person to lead anything approaching an intelligent discussion. I think country of origin profiling makes eminent sense at least for the foreseeable future and right now it is probably correct that many of the people we are welcoming from Syria deserve a much hairier eyeball than they are currently getting. On the other hand building a wall on the Southern border is a nonsense solution because none of these terrorists are crossing the Southern border to enter the United States – that being the most hazardous way to attempt entry into the United States by far. Also slamming the door in the face of all Muslims worldwide only serves to prolong the problem further by helping to foster anti-Government paranoia in the Muslim community, many of whom are already in this country and are dutiful and loyal citizens.
Either way, the best thing Americans can do to combat Islamic terrorism at home is to realize that the problem is not going to go away for the foreseeable future and to develop a certain amount of phlegm about it. This is our country dammit, and nothing they can do can change our planned course of action, whatever that might be.
We know that we must fight them. We must fight them here at home and we must fight them there where they live. In what way and for how long remain issues to be resolved. But fight we must. And we are. But we can’t imagine that someone is going to ascend to the White House and fire a magic bullet to end all terror. It’s not just wishful thinking, it’s dangerous.