In the weeks after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I remember an outpouring of defiant, soul-inspiring patriotism and love. The American flag was flying from every building and home. People wore “God Bless America” t-shirts everywhere. Rallies, prayer vigils, and fundraising campaigns brought people together. Under all these actions and words surged the conviction, “You can’t crush us.”
At the same time, a lot of constitutional liberties were undermined in the months and years after 9/11. Fear of terrorism fomented our current surveillance state, putting in motion a “panopticon” that Edward Snowden helped uncover back in 2013. In response to terror, many in our government responded with terror: funding and instituting practices in the name of “safety” that many have come to regret or condemn.
Here, too, in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Orlando on Sunday, we are at a crossroads of decision: what practices or measures should we recommend in the wake of disaster—and what decisions are merely reactionary or fearmongering?
Donald Trump has argued that this is all the result of Muslim immigration into the U.S., noting that he’s “right” for calling for a ban on immigration in the past, and fomenting an attitude of fear with conspiratorial claims, as Michael Brendan Dougherty notes in an article for The Week.
It is true that ideology fosters a certain demeanor or outlook on the world. Islamic extremism does this, just as atheism or Christianity do. G.K. Chesterton once said, “A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon.” What we believe fosters our character, our conception of the world, and our reactions to events in that world. Thus, the shooter’s beliefs cannot be separated entirely from his acts. Extremism may have helped foster his mental instability, or perhaps the instability fostered the extremism. Either way, it played a role.
Many—some on the left, some from the Muslim faith—have acknowledged this. Their attitude, however, is more balanced and accurate than that of Donald Trump. Immanuel al-Manteeqi explains for The Federalist why ISIS has tortured and killed homosexuals, but also writes that “reformist-minded Muslims have leeway, even within their own Islamic paradigms, to consign these anti-homosexual traditions to the dustbins of history.”
“The killer of Orlando was a homophobic Muslim extremist, inspired by an ideological take on my own religion, Islam,” writes Maajid Nawaz for The Daily Beast. “This global jihadist insurgency threatens every corner of the world and has killed more Muslims than members [of] any other faith.” Instead of denying the existence of extremism or blaming the horrific attack on other things, such as mental illness or guns, Nawaz urges his fellow liberals to confront the ideology involved head-on:
Liberals who claim that this has nothing to do with Islam today are being as unhelpful and as ignorant as conservatives who claim that this represents all of Islam. The problem so obviously has something to do with Islam. That something is Islamism, or the desire to impose any version of Islam over any society. Jihadism is the attempt to do so by force. This ideology of Islamism has been rising almost unchecked among Muslims for decades. It is a theocratic ideology, and theocracy should no longer have any place in the world today.
But it is as if we liberals will stoop to anything to avoid discussing ideology. We will initiate state sanctioned presidential kill lists and launch unaccountable targeted assassinations. Yet, no amount of drone strikes under Obama—at a rate that far exceeds Bush—will ever solve the problem. We cannot shoot our way out of an ideology. We cannot arrest our way out of an insurgency. Yes, law and war have their own place, but they will never solve the problem.
In the long run, only reducing the local appeal of this ideology will solve the problem. Whereas Islam today requires reform, the Islamist ideology must be intellectually terminated. To do so requires first acknowledging it exists, isolating it from Muslims, devising a strategy to challenge it, and then backing the voices that do.
Nawaz notes here the importance of separating out the extremists from the mainstream believers. This is something that all of us should be careful to do. I am pro-life. There are some extremist pro-lifers who have murdered abortion doctors in the past, in horrific acts of violence. Should their actions impede the ability of peaceful pro-lifers to gather in public places? Should I be banned from coming within a certain distance of an abortion clinic? It is wrong to paint all people with a radicalized brush.
Hillary Clinton has also acknowledged that radical terrorism played a role in the Mateen’s motivations, but she has focused her energies and arguments on the role played by guns: “It’s essential that we stop terrorists from getting the tools they need for carrying out these attacks,” Clinton said at a speech in Cleveland. “If the FBI is watching you for suspected terrorist links, you shouldn’t be able to buy a gun with no questions asked. … If you are too dangerous to get on a plane, you are too dangerous to buy a gun in America.”
Yet as Edward Morrissey shrewdly noted for The Week, “Hillary Clinton herself is under investigation by the FBI. … [It] has been investigating her use of a secret and unauthorized email server and the transmission of highly classified information through it ever since last summer. If Clinton were held to the same public standard she demands, just a suspicion and an investigation would disqualify her from the office she now seeks.”
But that, he notes, would be unjust—Clinton “is entitled to a presumption of innocent,” just like the rest of us. Just like the Orlando shooter himself.
“Exactly how reducing law-abiding citizens’ legal access to weapons will stop a jihadist bent on a suicide mission or even a garden-variety nut job from a rampage is something politicians don’t pause to explain,” Nick Gillespie writes for The Daily Beast. “The one thing that they—and perhaps us, too—cannot countenance, especially in an era when violence is at a low ebb, is that evil cannot be fully exterminated from our lives.”
Evil. A word we don’t like to use, in this day and age. A word that suggests tolerance, liberalism, and relativism can’t and won’t ever fix all our problems. A word that hints at an irrational component to violence, something that cannot be fixed by any political, institutional, or contextual reforms. In the words of Michael Caine in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
“Tragedy doesn’t have a single moral. It can be about many things,” notes Noah Millman. “Maybe we’ll get more sensible gun laws and more resources for mental illness and a better system for monitoring jihadi groups. But would any of those actions, even if worthy, have prevented this particular massacre? An explanation isn’t the same as a diagnosis. And even a diagnosis doesn’t imply a cure.”
When we remove sin from the equation, we’ll always look for institutions, objects, or people to blame. But if we are willing to admit that evil exists, we will understand that no ban—be it on guns, Islam, or fill-in-the-blank—will ever remove violence and tragedy from our world. And while we can consider balanced and thoughtful ways to mitigate evil people’s ability to do wrong, we will also remember that evil often wears a benign or even kind mask, and can be difficult, if not impossible, to detect.
Yet instead of leading to despair, this response can often lead us to show more grace, empathy, and love in the wake of terror and tragedy. As Jacob Bacharach wrote for The New Republic yesterday,
The proper response to terror is not to be terrorized, and that means taking a coolly actuarial position on attacks: they will be relatively rare, but that they cannot be stopped entirely by more police, metal detectors, intelligence sharing, vague strength, gun registries, invasions, drone strikes, or God forbid, internment camps and deportations. It’s no admission of defeat to admit that cars crash, houses burn, some people get cancer, hurricanes make landfall. Tomorrow, you could be hit by a bus. We live every day on the precipice of death. Reasonable caution is advisable; hysteria is not. The faux manly toughness that sells everything from the AR-15 to the Donald Trump candidacy is really a form of terrible cowardice, a surrender of reason to fear, a failure to do the one thing that the killers, whatever their unknowable hatreds, do not want the living to do: carry on with their lives.
We must respond to evil with good, and we must respond to evil with defiance. We must keep singing, dancing, loving, rejoicing in goodness and truth and beauty. We must stand tall and shout, “You can’t crush us.” We must love our neighbor, especially if our neighbor is Omar Mateen. Because for every life transformed by light and grace and love, another life—or perhaps even 49 lives—might be saved.
We mustn’t let terror take away our joy.
Gracy Olmstead is senior staff writer for The American Conservative.