Politics & Policy

What Doesn’t Work against Terrorism

Medics move a man injured by an explosive device in Central Park, July 3, 2016. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
We have not learned as much as we think.

When an Independence Day visitor to New York City got his foot blown off by a bag of explosives left in Central Park, the first thing that the authorities did was to reassure us that this was not an act of terrorism.

The first version of the story, trumpeted on CNN and elsewhere, was risible: People try to make homemade fireworks around Independence Day, and that’s probably what this was. And, truly, who among us could fail to appreciate the rich tradition of lovable, ungovernable scamps growing up on Fifth Avenue and 61st Street mixing up explosive concoctions out in the cow barns behind their $15 million apartments? The same kids no doubt dreamt of running away to join the circus while their nannies shoved them off toward Dalton.

If it wasn’t the Huck Finns of the Upper East Side, then who might it have been? The news reports were almost unanimously scrupulous in declining to say.

Outside of the reach of Tom Wolfe’s “Victorian gentleman,” the reactions were rather different: “An IED has been exploded in Central Park,” I was informed. I don’t know that that was the case, with media coverage of the incident being maddeningly vague as of early afternoon on July 4.

I cannot say with any confidence at the moment what happened in Central Park. I can say with some confidence what will happen, if not in Central Park then in similar high-profile public locations, because it has happened already and there is no reason to believe that it will not happen in the future.

The Islamic State and its groupies have a great deal in common with al-Qaeda, but there is a tactical difference that is going to be very important to us in the coming years. It may be the case that al-Qaeda did not follow up the September 11 attacks with an equally terrifying string of less spectacular low-level attacks because its members were unable to, but it also is the case that al-Qaeda was organizationally disinclined to do so, believing, at an institutional level, that such dramatic, theatrical attacks should be followed only with larger, more dramatic, more theatrical attacks. The Islamic State, on the other hand, is satisfied if it can inspire some mentally unstable loser on Facebook to shoot up a gay club in Orlando, or a shopping mall somewhere, or a school bus somewhere else.

We should assume that such low-level attacks are going to become a regular part of our lives for the foreseeable future — unless something truly effective is done to counter them.

What would that look like?

We have, by this point, a great deal of experience with what doesn’t work.

Nation-building doesn’t work. The democratic ambitions of the George W. Bush era, that the Taliban and Saddam Hussein could be knocked out and replaced with Touma al-Jefferson, did not pan out. The streams of primitivist, nationalist, anti-Western, and Islamist currents that flow together in the sewers of jihadism are more difficult to redirect than Bush et al. had imagined, and it simply is not the case that, as Bush put it, “the desire for freedom resides in every human heart.” Some hearts aren’t like that.

Barack Obama’s approach – which, though he’d deny it, is simply a variation on the Bush model – doesn’t work, either. Obama’s enthusiasm for drone assassinations has made “No. 2 man in ISIS” the most dangerous job in jihad since “No. 2 man in al-Qaeda,” but there’s always an endless supply of No. 2 from the same source. The drone strikes and covert operations were, in theory, supposed to be the bulldozer that clears the ground to permit diplomats to build the foundations of peace, but that hasn’t exactly worked out: President Obama is a foreign-policy incompetent, as was his first secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as is her successor. Our allies and our enemies alike have had good reason to lower their assessment of our capacities and our willingness to use them.

Jihadism is a cancer, and, as with cancer, neither prevention nor treatment is reliably effective.

Other countries have discovered other ineffective approaches: After providing its Muslim minority with their own sovereign state, India proceeded to build a highly democratic, secular republic in which Muslims enjoy political rights and opportunities not afforded their fellow religionists in many Muslim-monopoly countries. That doesn’t satisfy the jihadists, and India has suffered terribly from terrorism. Muslim-monopoly countries, even fundamentalist ones, also have failed to satisfy the demands of the sort of men who murder on behalf of the Islamic State. Oil emirates may be regarded as too worldly and corrupt (it is not difficult to make that case) but Turkey, too, has been targeted, even as it moves in an Islamist direction.

Jihadism is a cancer, and, as with cancer, neither prevention nor treatment is reliably effective.

Stephen Miller, policy director for the Donald Trump campaign, says: “The best way to prevent continued radicalization from developing inside America is to suspend temporarily immigration from regions that have been a major source for terrorists and their supporters.” He is correct, though what Trump himself believes from day to day or minute to minute is unknown and unknowable, inasmuch as he does not seem even to know himself. Newt Gingrich, who is campaigning harder for the vice presidency than Trump is for the presidency, says that Trump’s views are “evolving.” No doubt.

Some of us have been advocating the use of immigration policy as a makeshift anti-terrorism prophylactic for a good long while, and, though doing so is a needful thing, that will not be sufficient, either. For one thing, much of that immigration already has happened, and in Boston and Orlando it was not refugees but their U.S.-raised or U.S.-born children who took up the jihad.

At this moment, it is also certain that a would-be jihadist somewhere is planning to secret IEDs in Central Park, or to perpetrate a massacre at a school or a church, or perpetrate some other horrifying crime. Neither Clinton nor Trump has come up with a plausible approach to this problem. Obama failed before them, and Bush before him, and (it starts to sound repetitious) Clinton before him and Bush before him.

President Obama claims to know — exactly — what share of our national electricity output should come from wind and solar power (50 percent by 2025). Clinton believes she knows what an appendectomy should cost, and Trump believes that he knows practically everything worth knowing, except what “Brexit” means or how U.S. trade policy works.

None of them has the faintest idea what to do about the intifada whose opening skirmishes are being fought around us every day.

– Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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