Andrew C. McCarthy, a National Review Online contributing editor and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is author of the new book, Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad, released this week by Encounter Books. He talks about the book and the war we’re in with NRO editor Kathryn Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Do I have the sides right? They say “Allahu Akbar!” we say “Imagine the liability!”
Andrew C. McCarthy: Unfortunately, that’s exactly right, and you’ve hit on the key difference. They are a religious ideology reveling in a mission for which, far from making any apologies for their brutality, they exude a zeal found only in people convinced they are both right and justified. You won’t ever hear from them the slightest misgiving — no careful references to Infidelo-fascists so as not to offend all the wonderful moderate infidels out there.
We, on the contrary, are an odd combination of diffidence, self-loathing, and arrogance: doubtful we are worth the trouble to defend; apt to figure that if people hate us, we must deserve it; and sure that it is within our power to satisfy their grievances – even though we didn’t cause them – by dialogue, political processes, sensitivity-training, and, of course, buying them off — which simply confirms them in their suspicion that we don’t have the stomach for the fight.
Remember when the Israelis built their security fence and reduced Palestinian suicide bombings by about 95 percent? Prompted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the U.N.’s Court of International Justice promptly pronounced the fence — a passive, life-saving defense measure — to be a shameful violation of international law. In a nutshell, that’s where we’re headed: Ruled by a delusion that, in a world full of lawless savages abetted by rogue regimes, legal processes will save rather than enervate us.
Lopez: Who most damningly has been Willfully Blind?
McCarthy: Well, it’d be easy to say, “Why, the government, of course.” But government is heavily influenced by the media and the commentariat, and those elites will not abide the notion that there just might be a connection between Islam and Islamic terrorism. I think most people are more sensible than that. The more extensive government gets, though, and the more dependent on it we all become, the less will the public has to demand a governmental course correction. Absent some hair-raising event like 9/11, we go along.
Lopez: American investigators have been penalized for foiling plots?
McCarthy: In a perverse way, you’re penalized by your own success, yes. After 9/11, law enforcement was appropriately pushed to become more pro-active, to interrupt plots at a very early point (or even prevent the plots from forming at all, through devices like the laws barring material support to terrorist organizations). Human nature is Pollyannish. When you’re worried about a threat, and you take protective measures that cause you some inconvenience, and then the threat doesn’t further materialize, you are more likely to conclude that the threat wasn’t so serious after all rather than that the protective measures are your salvation. You start questioning, “Do we really need all this surveillance? How can we detain people without a trial? How do we really know those people were supporting al-Qaeda or Hezbollah rather giving to Islamic charities?” So sure, the more we succeed in preventing attacks, the more likely it is we will lose the tools required to prevent attacks.
Lopez: What’s the most devastating lesson from 15 years ago we still haven’t learned?
McCarthy: That the primary cause of Islamic terrorism is Muslim doctrine, and that we are not fighting a tiny, rag-tag collection of fringe lunatics who have somehow “hijacked” the “true Islam.”
Mark Steyn reminds us of Toynbee’s observation that civilizations die from suicide rather than murder, and our mulish refusal to look at what we’re up against is case in point. It’s really a frightful commentary on the low regard we have for ourselves: that we don’t think we are capable of soberly assessing the Islamic challenge without smearing all Muslims as terrorists — as if, in the scheme of things, it’s more important to shield the tender sensibilities of Muslims than fulfill our duty to protect American lives.
The stubborn fact is: Islamic doctrine is supremacist, chauvinist, and rife with calls to violence against non-Muslims. That doesn’t mean that these are the only elements of Islam. Nor does it mean that all Muslims, or even most, have any interest in acting on those elements. But moderate Muslims, no matter how great a majority of the faithful they may be, do not make Islam moderate. Islam is the font from which springs what we call fundamentalist Islam, radical Islam, militant Islam, political Islam, Islamo-fascism, or whatever we are calling it this week to avoid any hint that Islam has anything to do with the problem.
There are many different interpretations of Islam, of course. The one that truly threatens us — let’s call it fundamentalist Islam, since I think that’s closest to accurate — is not a fringe ideology. It is a comprehensive social system, with political, legal, and theological prescriptions. It is 14 centuries old; has in its history won the fealty of rich and poor, educated and illiterate, etc.; cuts across divides like Sunni-versus-Shiite; and today boasts hundreds of millions of adherents — not a majority of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, but an influential, dynamic minority.
Only a small percentage of fundamentalists cross the line into actual terrorist activity, but even a small percentage of hundreds of millions of people means an awful lot of terrorists, and the equally significant point is that the others — to a greater or lesser extent — share the goals if not the methodology. Moreover, the leading fundamentalist figures, people like Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, exert a powerful influence over even moderates. Their erudition and conviction, their seeming authenticity and command of the scriptures, are very intimidating for the average Muslim who just wants to go about his life.
In any event, the forcible tendencies of fundamentalist Islam may be exacerbated or rationalized by poverty, resentment, lack of democracy, etc. But they are not caused by such pretexts. The violence is commanded by scripture.
Lopez: Why did Omar Abdel Rahman want to kill Mubarak?
McCarthy: Because he was breathing. (I was going to clarify the ambiguity, but the “he” works whether you think the antecedent is Abdel Rahman or Mubarak.) The Blind Sheikh regards Mubarak as the “third traitor, backstabber” — that is, following Nasser and Sadat as modern presidents of Abdel Rahman’s native Egypt — who is in cahoots with the United States to destroy Islam.
Note here that when Islamic terrorists and their apologists talk about Islam being under siege, this has to be understood in the context of their hegemonic goals. Any regime that is not governing in accordance with sharia, or Islamic law, is implicitly attacking Islam since Allah commands that all the world be called to Islam and the establishment of sharia is deemed a necessary precondition to that divine injunction.
Lopez: You sent Rahman and Sayyid Nosair away for life. What was the most important lesson from that trial and investigation?
McCarthy: That there are severe limitations to how effective the criminal justice system can be in combating international terrorism, and severe downsides to using it. Under our due-process rules, trials necessarily create and convey to our enemies a lot of intelligence that is very useful to them. If the justice system is the principal counterterrorism response, it betrays a lack of seriousness about our security that our enemies notice and are fortified by. As a practical matter — Abdel Rahman being one of a handful of exceptions — most important jihadists are beyond our justice system’s reach. As I often note, bin Laden’s been under U.S. indictment for a decade — i.e., since before the embassy bombings, the Millennium plot, the Cole bombing, and 9/11. The indictment doesn’t seem to have deterred him much.
Lopez: Why do you love the FBI?
McCarthy: It is filled with good, decent, patriotic folk — the kind of people you’d like to have living next door. I have never loved the Bureau as an institution. As with any big institution of that kind, there are things to admire and things to revile. But I love the agents. I virtually grew up around them, and I’ve found them to be very honorable even in our disagreements, which have been many.
Lopez: You write, “If American lives are to hinge on the prosecution of terrorists vested with the full protections of the criminal justice system, it is alarming to consider the dross that can be the difference between success and failure.” Explain.
McCarthy: When someone is brought into our criminal justice system, no matter how serious the crime and how strong the evidence appears to be, our underlying presumption is that he is innocent, that courts and lawyers should zealously protect his liberty and privacy, and that he should get every bounce of the ball. In sum, our system proudly boasts that we’d prefer to see the government lose — i.e., we’d prefer to see guilty people go free than see a single innocent wrongly convicted.
A murderer will be acquitted in the federal system if the murder is not proved to have affected interstate commerce. A would-be terrorist will be acquitted of attempted bombing if the jury finds his exertions amounted only to “mere preparation” rather than the legally required “substantial step.” Bill Ayers, one of the terrorists who enjoys a friendly relationship with Barack Obama, is a free man today — despite his own admission of having participated in several bombings — because government surveillance violations caused evidence of his guilt to be suppressed. The defendants in my case tried to get the charges dismissed on the ground that the main informant made unauthorized recordings that the FBI — which didn’t know about them — failed to preserve.
These are the sorts of things that happen in legal cases. But a national security threat is not, essentially, a legal case. When the protection or even the preservation of the country is at stake, our position has to be that government must prevail — not that we’d prefer to see government lose. Government does not create our rights and our freedom, but it is necessary to their protection. If the system is not preserved, we are no longer free and our rights are worthless.
Lopez: Why are terrorism trials “intense, rewarding, and preposterous”?
McCarthy: They are intense because the stakes could not be higher. Acquitted terrorists will eventually be freed to return to the jihad, to kill again, so there is more than the usual imperative for prosecutors to see that justice is done in a case where the law has been violated.
They are rewarding, especially if you win, because by nullifying terrorists for long stretches, you know you have done more than the usual amount of good. Moreover, every interesting legal issue under the sun tends to come up, so they are a tremendous professional experience if you are striving to be a better lawyer.
They are preposterous because, from up close, you can see day-to-day, in a way that’s hard to quantify but patent, how crazy it is to think we could protect the country by relying on terrorism trials — which are prohibitively expensive, take years to complete (especially when appeals are factored in), can reach only a small fraction of the terrorist threat, are a telling indicator to our enemies that we shun fighting them in more decisive ways, and generate scads of information that is sure to help the people trying to kill us do so more efficiently.
Lopez: You argue that “international terrorism is not the type of national challenge the criminal justice system is designed to address.” You say that “trials in the criminal justice system don’t work for terrorism. They work for terrorists.” So how do we deal with terrorism and terrorists, realistically, ASAP?
McCarthy: Well, I am not against using the criminal justice system as a component in a comprehensive government response to the jihadist threat. I object to its being the centerpiece of a national counterterrorism strategy, as it was until 9/11, because as a national security matter, that’s counterproductive — it endangers us more than it helps. But when people are arrested in the United States plotting terrorism, and we can prosecute them without having to provide mounds of discovery and testimony describing our intelligence about, say, al-Qaeda or Iran’s Republican Guards Corps, then those are cases we should do. And since the best analyses indicate the jihadist threat is more atomized now — i.e., that the ideology is so widely available by the Internet and other means that cells are often forming without the mediating influence of an established terrorist organization — that means we should be able to do criminal cases against such cells without having to compromise our intelligence and our methods and sources for obtaining it.
A national-security strategy to combat Islamic militancy, however, has to have a strong military component. There is simply no substitute for killing and capturing jihadists. We haven’t been hit again since 9/11 because we have often killed and captured more terrorists in a day in Afghanistan or Iraq than we did in the eight years between the time the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993 and its destruction in 2001.
We also have to be realistic about the ideology at the root of this challenge. When we are not chanting the “religion of peace” mantra, we are encouraging Islamic reformers. Of course, nothing needs reform unless it is problematic in the first place. Islam is, to put it mildly, problematic. We don’t need to insult Muslims gratuitously, and we shouldn’t. Neither, however, do we need to pretend we think Islam is a net-positive.
Behind the operatives doing the killing are legions of sympathizers pushing soft jihad — pushing for Islamicization of our culture, court recognition of Islamic legal principles, sharia-compliant financial arrangements, sensitivity-training for our law enforcement and intelligence officers (who are now taught that jihad is the inner struggle to become a better person despite its undeniable history as a military struggle), special access to government agencies for dubious Islamic interest groups, extraordinary limits on free speech in order to suppress information about connections between Muslims and savagery, etc. In their own way, these creeping developments are more insidious for our way of life — with its separation of the religious and political realms — than the bombings, suicide hijackings, riots-on-demand and other less subtle forms of intimidation.
This all needs to be discouraged, and that can’t be done by only applying law enforcement or the military. You have to apply pressure diplomatically, by immigration restrictions, by an aggressive Treasury that tracks and seizes funds. It has to be comprehensive, and it has to start from the premise that, while we hope Islam reforms itself (something we can’t do for Islam), we make no apologies for the fact that we are not an Islamic society and have no intention of becoming one.
Lopez: I know you don’t like to talk about it but there are prosecutors and investigators who are putting their own lives and those of their families in danger, aren’t there?
McCarthy: Of course, but what we are asked to do, even at its most demanding, is a pittance compared to the selfless sacrifices the men and women in our military make every day. Those remarkable people stare death down, day in and day out, no complaint, so I think it would be a bit much for a prosecutor to whine about how hard he has it. Plus, the point of terrorism is to terrorize — if you let them think they are getting to you, they win.
Lopez: Is anyone running for president NOT willfully blind?
McCarthy: Sen. McCain is head and shoulders better than the two Democrats — I don’t think you’ll ever see a President McCain consulting with or pardoning Weather Underground and FALN terrorists. But McCain follows the party line in most respects, is enthusiastic for democracy-promotion even as it legitimizes Islamic fundamentalists, thinks we need to bolster Abbas despite Fatah’s legacy of terror, etc. I don’t see anything on the horizon that would suggest a change in our current mindset.
Lopez: How is Islam like fire?
McCarthy: Fire is a useful but very dangerous thing. For those who are careful with it and rigorously harness its explosive potential, it can be very beneficial. That’s why most Muslims lead productive, dignified, honorable lives. But Islam always has that explosive potential, many of its most influential figures, like Sheikh Abdel Rahman, believe that potential is meant to be unleashed to vanquish non-Muslims. There are far too many Muslims who internalize that message.
Lopez: “Militant Islam may actually pose an existential threat to the United States…” you write. What must be done?
McCarthy: The first step is to recognize the threat and its source. If, as I contend, the doctrine is the source, then security policy has to direct itself to the doctrine. We can’t change the doctrine ourselves. But we can protect ourselves, and increase the pressure for reform, by refusing to tolerate terrorist safe-havens; punishing regimes that facilitate jihadist organizations, particularly by giving them safe-haven; imposing restrictions on business with and immigration from Islamic countries unless they reform; punishing regimes that promote the exportation of Wahhabist and Salafist interpretations of Islam; dealing only with authentic Muslim reformers while shunning groups like CAIR; and making clear that, until Islam actually reforms — until Muslims and Islamic regimes systematically reject and crack down on jihadism in a convincing way — we are not going to pretend that a person’s adherence to Islam is irrelevant to whether we should regard him with suspicion. That doesn’t mean we investigate people solely because of their religion. Yet, as long as we are under siege from Islamic terror groups, we can’t take the position that it is irrelevant whether a person who is here, or wants to come here, is an Islamic fundamentalist who believes sharia should be installed and jihad is the legitimate means toward that end.
Lopez: Don’t be shy: Why is Willful Blindness a “must read”?
McCarthy: That’s so nice of you to suggest, Kathryn. The book is not something I ever thought I’d write. Some of it is personal and a lot of it deals with things we — very much including I — did wrong. But it’s been 15 years and we’re still doing the same things wrong. Because I had the privilege of being inside the official response when the war really started, and dealing face-to-face with the enemy, I have a vantage point that separates my take from the mountains of commentary counterterrorism has generated in the last several years. So for me, that finally made it a “must write.” Whether it’s a “must read” will be for others to decide.