The components of this latest weapon of mass terror are simple: One (1) human being, prepared to die; one (1) large truck.
In today’s world, both are readily available. And in France on Thursday, the combination was used to murder more than 80 innocent people celebrating a national holiday on a warm, Mediterranean night.
Yes, it’s frustrating to once again be trying to process this, to hear the same worn language of condemnation and solidarity from world leaders. Yes, it’s cause for anger and perhaps fear. How do you find and stop that single individual? How do you defeat the kind of people who would perpetrate such an atrocity?
The instinct of course is to strike back and strike back hard, so let’s go with that approach for the moment. Who do we attack, and where? Against what targets do we unleash the greatest military the world has ever known?
With that, already the decision has grown more complicated. Talk all you want about getting tough and taking off the gloves and — well, you know the rhetoric. You’ve heard it. You may even have expressed it. But what does that really mean? What does it offer, beyond the obvious emotional appeal?
Let’s assume that the perpetrator in the French attack was sent by ISIS; ISIS sympathizers are already claiming it as an act of revenge for the recent killing of Abu Omar Shishani, its secretary of war. As Shishani’s death suggests, the entity calling itself the Islamic State is already reeling in military terms, its precious “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq reduced to a fraction of its previous territory, manpower and resources. Earlier this week, President Obama had announced the deployment of another 500 troops to Iraq to support the forces preparing to finish off the job.
If that’s the strategy and that’s the target, we’re already winning that war. Why doesn’t it feel like we’re winning? Our military leaders are can-do people, ready to fight wherever and whenever we ask, but why are they all but unanimous in warning that in the end, this is not a war to be won through military means?
Because to use the classic formulation, defeating the Islamic State and dismantling its caliphate is necessary, but it is not sufficient.
The truth is that our physical power and muscle — the traditional aspects of “strength” — are limited in this context. The high-tech, hugely expensive and top-of-the line F-35 fighter jets being built in part at the Lockheed plant here in Marietta are the most advanced weaponry ever built by man, and are certainly more than a match for a man and a truck.
But again: Which man, and which truck? Our enemies are pretty smart; they have designed their own weaponry in exquisite counterpoint to our own.
There are some — the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams of the world — who will tell you that the answer is to return to the Middle East in force, putting boots on the ground in, well, the potential list is pretty long. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen? We could conquer easily, but then what? It’s a question to which they have never had an answer. To exert control would require long-term occupation, and we saw how that went in Iraq and how it’s going in Afghanistan. Earlier incarnations of ISIS thrived in Iraq even when we still occupied the country, and in fact much of our current predicament can be traced back to our botched attempt to project “strength” and “authority” in the heart of the Arab world in the wake of Sept. 11. “Shock and awe” ain’t all it was cracked up to be; our enemies can pull off shock and awe too.
Yes, improved intelligence is necessary, but that too is not sufficient. What intelligence system, what law enforcement network, is capable of finding a man and a truck? The truth is that they often do find him and stop him, many more times than we know. The truth is also that they cannot do so every time.
A war on Islam? That’s a pretty farflung enterprise. Malaysia, India, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Niger …. Shishani, the dead ISIS leader, was born in Chechnya. The smarter course, the less emotionally resonant course, is to enlist the Islamic world in common cause against these idiots, because the idiots are their enemies as well as our own. They kill far more fellow Muslims than they do the “infidel.” A truck bomb in Baghdad earlier this month killed more than 200 people in a marketplace; another attack struck Medina in Saudi Arabia, right outside the tomb of the prophet Muhammed, one of the holiest sites in Islam.
We can also withdraw, try to close ourselves off from the rest of the world, become more insulated and defensive. You hear a lot of that kind of talk too these days, from people who portray themselves and that strategy as “strong” and “tough”. Again, there’s a lot of appeal in the idea of strength. The problem is that approach amounts to surrender, not victory. That is precisely the goal that the terrorists wish to accomplish. And if you close off the borders and cease the flow of people and strangle the flow of goods, the Internet will still offer ways for our enemies to reach the aggrieved, the resentful, the mentally ill.
UPDATE (11 a.m.): Newt Gingrich proposes to confront each of the 3 million Muslim-Americans in this country, including native-born and naturalized citizens, and demand a repudiation of Sharia. He also proposes to deport those who refuse to do so. Given that Sharia is a term just as debatable within Islam as the real meaning of the Bible is within Christianity, it is an absurd notion. It also flagrantly violates a number of the provisions of the U.S. Constitution. But hey, it’s strong and tough, right?
So here comes the hard part, the part in which words such as patience and diligence and stubborn commitment come into play. There’s no emotional resonance in that, no suggestion of an easy or simple answer. But life is like that. You know you’re not going to build financial security on some get-rich-quick real estate scam, you know that you’re not going to pay off your mortgage in two years through these five easy steps, and you know enough not to trust the hucksters who claim otherwise. Likewise, you’re not going to solve the challenge of radical Islamic terrorism by saying the words “radical Islamic terrorism” and talking vaguely of being strong.
This is at root a war of values, pitting freedom and openness and life against repression, cruelty and death. The people behind ISIS are a pitiful few in relative terms, and the ideology that they preach is antithetical to most of the world and most of the Islamic world as well. If given any chance whatsoever, people flee that vision; they want nothing to do with it. And the way that this will be won is to employ those strengths of freedom, openness and life at every opportunity, and to never lose faith in their power.