As if we needed another one, the latest upsurge in the intertwined national debates about gun violence, mass shootings, and terrorism provides another example of how hyper-partisan, encrusted thinking is obscuring the road to dramatically improved policies – and greater public safety. Specifically, way too many Americans are still mired in a dangerously distracting debate over where the biggest terrorist threats come from, rather than admitting that the nation faces numerous types of violent groups that fit any sensible definition of terrorism.
And as a result, way too many (including most prominent political leaders) are ignoring a crucial lesson of America’s post-September 11 experience – that concerted, innovative, well-funded national campaigns against terrorist movements actually work.
After the attacks of 2001, the focus understandably was Islamic terrorism. And if you doubt the impact, ask yourself why else no hijacked jetliners have crashed into U.S. skyscrapers and similarly big targets for nearly 20 years. And why in 2018, the last full data year, exactly one homicide in America was connected with Islamism.
Dumb luck? But as golf immortal Ben Hogan once said to an exasperated less successful rival who accused him of getting the lion’s share of the breaks, “[T]he more I practice, the luckier I get.” In that vein, surely massive American anti-terrorism efforts abroad and at home have played an important role. If you’ve forgotten what they’ve been, here’s a quick summary (from the Los Angeles Times article linked above):
“Despite horrifying abuses and mistakes, from torture to secret prisons, [the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations] have largely destroyed Al Qaeda and its most dangerous offspring. The U.S.-led war against Islamic State has killed thousands of militants and broken the group’s hold on territory in Iraq and Syria.
“Domestic law enforcement has monitored extremists at home and interrupted dozens of plots (including some that turned out to be insubstantial). And common-sense security measures have made us less vulnerable; no U.S. plane has been hijacked since 9/11.”
I’d add that, despite numerous calls for sharp increases from Democrats and others on the Left, U.S. admissions of asylum-seekers from Middle Eastern countries and elsewhere around the world remained exceedingly modest under former President Barack Obama, and have dropped sharply under President Trump.
The clear meaning? Yes, as President Trump’s critics have claimed, Islamic-inspired terrorism has been on the wane. But it looks glaringly obvious that deserving much of the credit have been measures many of them strongly opposed – and still oppose, mainly because they’ve been so determined to smear Mr. Trump and others backing such hard-line policies as simple Islamo-phobes who have long been chasing a mirage.
But don’t think this lets the President and many of his supporters off the hook. For until recently, they’ve acted as if they’ve been so bent on defending the anti-jihadist campaign and on justifying its continuation that they’ve soft-pedaled its clear success, and have been slow to acknowledge the more recent emergence of an unmistakably serious violent white supremacist threat.
Chiefly, there’s compelling evidence that since his inauguration, the President has reduced funding for government efforts to fight domestic terrorism springing from racist and other extreme right-wing roots, and increased the resources devoted to fight violent jihadists. That shift might have been justified early during the Trump presidency – shortly after two major Islamist-inspired shootings in San Bernardino, California in December, 2015, and in Orlando, Florida in June, 2016. But since then, the domestic racists etc have been much more dangerously active, and it’s not enough for the President to condemn them explicitly and emphatically. His money needs to move where his mouth is.
Not that anti-jihadism budgets need to be cannibalized to achieve this aim. Vigilance on that front remains essential as well, lest America be caught by surprise again a la September 11. Washington also needs to move much more decisively against violent leftists – like the Dayton, Ohio shooter seems to have been, along with antifa.
In other words, U.S. anti-terrorism policy needs to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time – and be as agile and continually evolving as the sources of terrorism themselves.