The capability of radical Islamist terrorists claiming fealty to ISIS to attack soft targets here has been painfully demonstrated again, this time in the form of 49 dead and 53 wounded in an attack on a gay nightclub in Florida. The Orlando massacre is now added to ISIS-inspired attacks on Philadelphia (January of this year, 1 police officer shot 3 times); San Bernadino (December 2015, 14 dead, 21 injured); Dallas (May 2015, 1 wounded), New York City (October 2014, hatchet attack on 4 police). The Tsarnaev brothers who killed 3 and wounded 264 in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing also reportedly had ISIS ties.
The Orlando massacre stands as the largest butcher’s bill served on America by Muslim fanatics since 9/11. The question haunting us is whether our leadership has somehow made its own separate peace with this form of death-dealing. Under this view, these attacks hardly appear to be earthquakes tearing at the legitimacy of the American government; they can be managed. President Obama himself has noted as much to his advisors stating that more Americans die in bathtub accidents than at the hands of terrorists. It is a shockingly deformed understanding of the precarious nature of order within any country.
But body counts aren’t the main measure of threats to the nation. If they were, Pearl Harbor needn’t have bothered the country that much. After all, only 2,000 and change died during that December 1941 attack. However, Pearl Harbor was immediately understood in its full reality as an attempt to push American naval power in the Pacific all the way back to the coast of California, thereby allowing Japan and the Axis Powers an open forum in Asia for their works.
Today our fleet is intact. Nonetheless, these ISIS-inspired attacks reveal to the American people something even worse, potentially, than the Japanese sunrise attack on Pearl Harbor: their leadership has no strategy for dealing with ISIS save drone warfare and a small buildup of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously such actions will not disable ISIS, whose truly global reach includes 90 terrorist attacks and 1,390 deaths outside of Iraq and Syria since June 2014. The administration has stressed that the “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq has been reduced in size. This does not meet the case. Its attacks around the world are succeeding. How much longer until ISIS’s weaponry and tactics become more sophisticated and the body counts become higher? Our leaders appear willing to find out.
Nine years ago, the eminent Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis fretted that American policy towards Islamic terror might conclude in indecision, if not outright intellectual avoidance of the threat that confronts us. Lewis opens a 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed by comparing Soviet and American responses to Middle Eastern terrorism during the Cold War. Such attacks against the Russians (Lewis can recall only one) were met with “swift and dire” consequences. Terrorist attacks on American personnel and interests in the region were met with visits from anxious diplomats: What have we done to offend you—how can we make things right?
U.S. installations in Lebanon were attacked repeatedly in the 1970s and 1980s with little response by the Americans. However, the one known attempt on Soviet officials, Lewis merely describes, was met with the Soviet answer of kidnapping the family of the group’s leader. The threat of body for body ended with the Soviets being released and likewise the terrorist’s family members.
What kind of tone did this set? Lewis notes that Muslim reluctance to criticize the Soviet Union thereafter ran so deep that officials of Muslim nations fought against the introduction of a U.N. General Assembly Resolution that only “deplored” the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. South Yemen voted against it, Algeria and Libya abstained, and Libya was a no-show while the PLO observer took the occasion to cheer the Soviets on. Lewis further notes that the Soviets already ruled and misruled half a dozen Muslim countries in Asia, yet received little to no criticism.
Deference to the Russians was not unanimous, though. Watching all of this, Lewis observes, was a young, wealthy Saudi, Osama bin Laden, who declared America and the Soviet Union to be the twin enemies of Islam—but the Soviet Union was the more dangerous enemy of the two. It was in this context that the mujahedeen were willing to take American arms and materiel to push the Soviet invaders out of Afghanistan. Note the interesting plan here: One enemy humiliated by Islamist “freedom fighters” would then cue up another as the next phase of their war opened on the West. Osama bin Laden thought that when war was finally brought to America, Americans would wilt under the pressure owing to their moral and social corruption.
Lewis’ ability to cut through the dense soup of confusion, political, cultural, religious, and otherwise, is evident when he puts this question: what has the West historically represented to Islam? Its chief rival, is the answer. Lewis argues that Islam sees itself in competition with Christianity to “bring salvation to the rest of humankind.” The West embodied this religious obstacle. It explains why Arab nations supported the Nazis— because of their threat to the West. After the defeat of the Third Reich, many of these same countries (though not, as noted, the outsider bin Laden) extended support to the Soviet Union.
The worst part is that bin Laden’s views on a weakened America seemed confirmed, what with attacks on the World Trade Center and on U.S. troops in Somalia in 1993, the Riyadh attack in 1995, and the American embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, with little to no consequences dealt to the jihadis. But a wrench was thrown into the plans when the attack on the World Trade Center was renewed on 9/11. The erasure of that building and bombing of the Pentagon incurred the immediate wrath of American arms. America, as Harold Rood would’ve said, decided to run the show. Lewis cites the obvious fact that after that, there were no terrorist attacks on American soil for a long period of time.
Clearly, the forces of Islamist terror were caught off guard and had to regroup. Unfortunately, what should have been an attempt to inflict maximum carnage on America’s enemies morphed into nation-building and democracy-promotion. American policymakers eventually had their way and ignored the obvious truth that nations fight wars only for their own sake. Our policies in Afghanistan and Iraq became the project of the U.S. government now leading wars for other peoples’ sake.
We gave our enemies the opportunity to regroup, while the deleterious consequences of continuous warfare predictably wafted back into America and hardened domestic political divisions. Who had betrayed whom? And the American people rightly saw all of this for what it was and turned against their government’s policies.
Yet we know that unless our country takes matters into its own hands and inflicts death on ISIS in the most terrible degree we can, such attacks will continue across America.
In this respect, we have to remove ISIS as a threat and as a source of inspiration for future terrorists. We have to run the show by defeating ISIS and the world must watch us do it, as Angelo Codevilla observes. We would do well to act mindfully on what Codevilla has termed the tripod of ISIS power: the Sunni peoples it rules, Sunni states that facilitate its trading needs and supply it with revenue, and its legion of foreign fighters who come to join it. Which leg to destroy first?