How to Defy Terror?

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.


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6 Responses to How to Defy Terror?

  1. I think something we need to address in particular religion and political discourse is how subjects are spoken about.

    I wrote about this subject a few days before this horrible tragedy on my blog.

    There is a way to have discussions and discourse on subjects without feeding a narrative of ignorance and hate.

    I would take from your article the point about the “Dust bins of history”. This is what we need to do with all ways of dealing with discourse that alienate people from the discussion and were it is an active push to not delve into the depths of subjects or to misrepresent them.

    This element exists in Christianity as it does in Islam as it does in Republican politics as it does in Democrat politics as it does in anarchist circles as it does in libertarian circles as it does in every single sphere.

    We need to address this in a massive way to say this is not an appropriate way to do discours and vanish it from the modern world.

    Great piece in a lot of ways 🙂 Thank you for posting.

    – The Smiling Pilgrim

  2. Eric says:

    “Jawaz urges his fellow liberals to confront the ideology involved head-on.”

    In general, people criticize those whom they can influence. This explains why there is much more animus in the West toward (say) apartheid South Africa or Israel’s occupation of the West Bank than there is toward North Korea with its unparalleled oppression of its own people.

    Western liberals–and for that matter, “moderates” across the Muslim world–have zero ability to influence the ideology of radicalized, extremist Muslims. When a Muslim authority figure speaks out against violent extremism, not only does he possibly put himself in personal danger, but all he does is discredit himself as an authority figure from the perspective of the violent extremist.

    The impossibility of influencing people like Omar Mateen is why liberals don’t “confront the ideology head-on.”

    (Conversely, the flip side of the threat of what terrorists do to us, is what we do to ourselves in the face of terrorism. Liberals and libertarians especially worry that demonizing Muslims will lead ordinary Americans, individually or collectively, to do awful things to the Muslim minority of this country. And here, we DO have the ability to influence what happens, through the political process. This is why liberals often appear to be more hostile to Donald Trump, for example, than they are to terrorists.)

    In the face of fear and anxiety, people typically focus on what they can control (or think they can control).

    – We think we can control who obtains guns.
    – We think we can control who enters our country.
    – We think we can control the level of surveillance on Muslims.
    – We think we can control the level of mental health care we provide.
    – We think we can control the territorial integrity of groups like ISIS through military intervention.
    – We think we can control the proliferation of propaganda on the internet.

    Not surprisingly, some mixture of all the above comes to dominate the response to mass shootings and/or terrorist attacks.

    I don’t know what the right policy response is, but I do know that we can’t control what ideology takes hold in some individual’s brain. I believe this is why you don’t see more liberals articulating eloquent denunciations etc. of violent radical Islam. The evil they do is obvious to all and they are clearly impervious to persuasion.

  3. mark_be says:

    “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.”

    And yet, in this particular case, restricted access to guns and more easily accessible mental health care might have made a difference. From all accounts, Mateen was mentally unstable, perhaps without having a diagnosable mental illness (though that might never become clear). He probably was gay, which would have conflicted with his religious beliefs (homosexuality is, as far as sins go, the one that trumps all others), though I’ll note that no one yet has delivered proof that he ever has had sex with another man. He was known for violent outbursts, for making threatening remarks about women, racial minorities and about everyone he’d be at odds with. Twice, he’d been on the radar of the FBI.

    This is the profile of a man with a chip on his shoulder who’d have benefitted immensely from professional help. Yet, instead of talking to a psychologist, he went on the internet, read some ISIS propaganda, and proceeded to shoot up a nightclub he’d used to frequent.

    Still, I can’t help but think that he might have carried out a massacre regardless of his justifications. He’s a terrorist because he’d pledged allegiance to ISIS, yet, unlike San Bernardino, also falls in the tradition of mentally disturbed American mass murderers.

    And while politicians are tripping over themselves promising measures to stop internal terrorist attacks, non-terrorist mass murders have become a fait divers. I’m not convinced you can prevent the former while ignoring the latter as an acceptable price to pay on the altars of the Second Amendment and restricted access to health care.

  4. laurano says:

    No, we will not stop violence by regulating guns, or criminals from getting them but we will never stop people from driving drunk and yet we regulate it anyway. We try to regulate the bus drivers’ behavior as well as the pedestrian’s, in the name of safety. We will never allow someone under FBI investigtion to obtain nuclear weapons either. We will never eliminate mental illness but it behooves us to do all we can to mitigate it. And we won’t eliminate hate but we certainly don’t have to stoke it or play up to it. Oh, and Hillary Clinton is not under FBI investigation per the FBI, repeating that lie over and over is morally wrong.

  5. LouisM says:

    The equivalent parallel of this article is that all the poverty programs will not erase poverty and all the educational programs will not erase ignorance and stupidity.

    The bottom line and I think this should be both a law and a policy. If the US finds military action worthwhile enough to engage then no immigration should be allowed. That’s just commonsense.

    Its just commonsense not to allow potential enemy combatants into your country during military conflict (official, unofficial, police action, whatever).

  6. smartsenior says:

    It is true that a prospective ban on Muslim immigration wouldn’t have prevented the Orlando attack since Omar Mateen was born here. But a great many people will take that attack as more evidence that a certain percentage of Muslims will never be able to exist peacefully in our society, and therefore we should stop importing them by the millions. Our Country isn’t obliged to let them immigrate here period.

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