A few words to add to my post yesterday on the religious roots of today’s era of terrorism. I think it’s perfectly possible to agree with that analysis of what is going on, while disagreeing on what to actually do about it. There’s this tendency to conflate a willingness to recognize some core illiberal parts of Islam as the problem with an invade-occupy-and-torture strategy of the last administration. But the two are easily separable. In fact, it is perfectly obvious at this point that a military strategy will not only fail but actually make things worse. There is no doubt in my mind that the invasion of Iraq, for example, advanced the cause of Jihadism as much as the brutal torture of Muslims by the CIA and every other branch of the armed services as well. The two brothers behind the Charlie massacre were both converted, we are told, by images from Abu Ghraib and Gitmo.
So what can we do? We cannot be the reformers of the Islamic world – again, that would make matters worse. Equally, in my view, we must not give an inch on freedom of expression, especially blasphemy. We need to drop the double standards and not self-censor with some religions, while ripping on others. We should have the right to rip on them all. If you’re going to publish photos of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, you sure can publish the rather innocuous cover of Charlie now at large. Ross makes some excellent points on this today.
Our main current tool is NSA spying. It’s very hard to know how necessary our current expansive spying apparatus really is – because it’s cloaked in the secrecy that effectively ends democratic accountability, except via the executive branch, which, even when held by a liberal Democrat, is far too terrified of presiding over another attack to question anything the CIA or NSA tells them. But do I prefer that kind of surveillance to drone wars that seem to be fomenting more Jihadism than they eliminate? I’d say so. I’d rather not do either, but it’s clear we have a real problem, and that terror directed at basic freedoms of travel and expression requires vigilance. If that means a retreat on privacy, that’s a trade-off I’m prepared to make.
But even the best intelligence will fail in the face of well-concealed sleeper cells or lone wolves or lone packs.
The French identified the Charlie mass-murderers long before the attack. They failed to prevent it. (They tell us they are preventing many plots, and again, we have to trust them, even though in the US, little trust can exist when high intelligence officials like Clapper and Brennan lie directly to the Congress and the public and even spy on their over-seers and are never held to account by the president.) But the fact remains that some of these attacks will succeed – because they only need to win once, while we have to win every time. We cannot ultimately control that but we can control our response. We must make sure we do not take the Jihadist bait, with racist or polarization, and ratchet up a cycle that only leads to more Jihadism and more terror. That’s where I think Obama’s strength lies in this: with his remarkable imperturbability and emotional calm. I think that’s a shrewder defense than declaring a “war” on Jihadism with every attack.
We can end the worst provocations – by closing GTMO and truly pressuring the Israelis to stop the explosive settlement campaign to wipe Palestine off the map. And we can keep calm and carry on. The huge crowds in France last Sunday were magnificent. A bigger test comes now – whether we can soldier on without further polarization and a common defense of core Western ideas. I think we can. Because I think we must. Even as so many dead lie round.