It is the nature of terrorism to have greater psychological than physical impact. That is the point: to sow fear—terror, after all, is pervasive, randomized fear—that far exceeds the death and destruction that the terrorists are actually capable of inflicting. Objectively, the San Bernardino atrocity doesn’t signal any greater vulnerability of Americans to death by shooting—your chances of being a victim of a terrorist attack are infinitesimally small. But a lot of people are afraid, and certain politicians–the usual suspects–are doing their best to exacerbate and exploit that fear. Here is the inimitable Chris Christie:
Our nation is under siege. What I believe we’re facing is the next world war. This is what we’re in right now, already.”
Greco memo to Christie: Over 400,000 Americans died in World War II. The 15-year death toll from terrorist violence invoking Islam, including 9/11: just over 3,000. Excluding 9/11, the number falls to 45.
Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush were a bit less apocalyptic than Christie, but in broad agreement. What these politicians don’t understand—or maybe they do understand but don’t care—is that in exaggerating our vulnerability, in fomenting a siege mentality, they are literally abetting the terrorists.
ISIL to Christie: Thank you so very much.
The plain, brutal fact is that there is no magic bullet for taking out ISIL. That was the underlying message of President Obama’s speech to the country last night: it’s not easy, it’s going to be a long slog, but we’re working very hard and we will win. My one quibble with the President’s generally sensible speech was that he said we are at war with ISIL. Wars are conducted between nation states. To say that we are at war with ISIL is to ratify that pseudo-caliphate’s claim to sovereign status. But the president may have felt politically compelled to sound a note of bellicosity in order to anticipate the predictable attacks from the right. And they came. John McCain and Paul Ryan complained that there was nothing new in the president’s strategy. Donald Trump tweeted, “That all there is? We need a new President, FAST.” Of course, none of these gentlemen has a magic bullet.
An interesting, sympathetic but critical reaction to the president’s speech came from a reader of the TPM website, who fears that the president is being too sensible to deal adequately with our fevered domestic politics:
The president’s speech was just what I expected. Serious, reasonable, thoughtful. But will it do anything to cut into support for someone like Trump? Will it actually reassure anyone who is genuinely frightened of Muslims becoming radicalized and launching attacks in their backyard? I don’t think so. Obama’s speech, as sound as it was on policy grounds, won’t do any of the things he hopes in terms of convincing the skeptical public that he is doing enough or all that is possible.
So this gets me to the conundrum. Is it really responsible to be so responsible that it does nothing to check demagogic and Islamophobic responses?
It is one thing to note that the biggest threat posed by ISIS is that we’ll react stupidly and play into their strategy. It is another to take steps that might actually prevent us from reacting stupidly. I would propose that at this point, it may be necessary to act a little stupid to prevent, hopefully, a worse response down the line.”
Have we really come to this: is it really advisable for our government to take irrational, self-defeating actions in order to placate an irrational public inflamed by irresponsible demagogues? I’m not by nature an optimist about these things, but I don’t think we have reached that point.