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We Are Not Doing Everything We Can

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No, We Are Not ‘Doing Everything We Can’ The lie at the heart of our national-security argument

One of the great problems we face in our ongoing confrontation with Islamic fundamentalism is that our enemies are rational and we are not.

It is a mistake — one that we insist on repeating — to tell ourselves that the jihadists and ISIS groupies who perpetuate terrorist spectaculars such as the attack on the Pulse nightclub outside Orlando are irrational, that they are mentally disorganized lunatics of the familiar-enough sort exemplified by Jared Lee Loughner and John Salvi, who may or may not believe themselves to be acting in the service of a particular cause. (Salvi was an abortion opponent who believed that a Vatican-based currency-manipulation scheme was shaping world affairs, and who believed himself to have been targeted by, among others, the Cosa Nostra and the Freemasons. Loughner, too, was obsessed with a currency-manipulation conspiracy.) Lunacy is not what we are seeing with domestic jihadists. What we see instead is the pursuit of specific cultural and political ends through acts of violence directed at symbolically important soft targets.

We speak of “lone wolf” jihadists as though this phenomenon were somehow independent of the wider Islamist project. It is not. The model of “leaderless resistance” in the service of terrorist projects is not new, and it has not been employed by the Islamists at random. Leaderless resistance has long been a part of the thinking of neo-Nazi groups such as Brüder Schweigen, and the Islamists have had a great deal of opportunity to develop that approach in various insurgencies around the world. Equally important, the emergence of the Internet as a worldwide medium for political communication and cultural expression has provided 21st-century terrorists with opportunities that were far out of the reach of their mimeograph- and fax-dependent predecessors a generation ago. If Omar Mateen turns out, as expected, to have had little or no substantive contact with organized Islamist groups, that fact will demonstrate the success of their communication strategy rather than the limitations of their reach.

We must be honest with ourselves about the enemy and his characteristics. He is not crazy. He has goals, and we know what they are and how he goes about pursuing them.

None of this is exactly new: Neither the methods nor the targets are unique to our time. It is worth remembering that the worst massacre at a U.S. school did not happen in the Columbine era but in 1927, and that it involved no firearms at all — a failed political candidate in Bath, Mich., murdered 38 schoolchildren and six adults (and injured 58 more) with explosives as an act of revenge against the community that had rejected his candidacy. There has never been a time at which people in the United States did not have the means and the opportunity to commit these kinds of atrocities. What has changed is that the world now has a substantial population of willing terrorists: a small but by no means trivial share of the world’s Muslim population.

The world’s Muslim population is not the United States’ Muslim population — and it need not be. As I have been arguing since well before Donald Trump brought his reliably beef-witted approach to the question, preventing Islamic terrorism should be a main focus of U.S. immigration and visa policy. That need not mean a blanket ban on immigration and visas from Islamic populations, but it will mean substantial restrictions and extraordinary scrutiny. We should forthrightly acknowledge that the plain conclusion to be drawn from the European experience is that if a Western country does not already have a large, poorly assimilated Muslim minority population, it would do well not to acquire one. To pretend that Islam is, at this moment in history, just another faith to be absorbed into the general American ethic, as though Muslim distinctiveness were no different from Amish distinctiveness, is culpably sentimental. Mateen was a U.S.-born American citizen with Afghan immigrant parents, and the reality is that this is a different proposition from being a U.S.-born citizen of Irish Catholic background, inasmuch as even at its height IRA terrorism was a minor concern for the United States, though it was a major concern for our closest ally. There are Hindu radicals in the world and violent Buddhists, but the United States is not immediately concerned with them as a question of national self-interest.

The usual miscreants are making the usual dumb claims about U.S. gun law and the need for gun control, with such Hollywood luminaries as Kirstie Alley demanding that government “ban sales of fully automatic assault rifles to the general public,” which is more or less what the federal government did in 1934, and which is immaterial to the question at hand, inasmuch as no fully automatic weapon was used in Florida. The question of background checks inevitably has come up. But consider this: Not only did Mateen twice pass the standard federal background check (he had no criminal convictions or any other prohibitory factor) but he was twice interviewed by the FBI as a potential Islamic terrorist. Whatever it is that Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama imagines in the way of background checks for members of the general public purchasing ordinary firearms such as the ones Mateen used, it is sure to be something quite a bit less involved than an active FBI investigation of a suspected terrorist.

Which brings us to another consideration: As with the case of the perpetrators of the homicidal violence that plagues so many American cities, many terrorists and other perpetrators of mass killings are people who are hardly unknown to our law-enforcement authorities. Mateen was on the federal radar. Adam Lanza’s mental-health problems were no secret in his community. More than 90 percent of those who commit murders in New York City have prior criminal histories. The Fort Hood shooter was in contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, and that fact was known to the FBI. These killers do not come out of nowhere.

The habitual Democratic response to these episodes is to demand that we restrict the legal rights of people who have not been charged with, much less convicted of, a crime, which is constitutionally, legally, morally, and politically impossible. Beyond that, we get speeches that sound like they come from party functionaries in some cartoon version of a 1930s totalitarian state: Mrs. Clinton promises that we shall “redouble our efforts!” against terrorism, while President Obama vows that we shall “spare no effort!” in our investigation of this atrocity. One half expects them to promise that the wheat harvest will double under the five-year plan unless the wreckers and hoarders sabotage our program.

The fact is that we are not redoubling any efforts, not where it could really count: screening people who enter the country legally and preventing illegal entries. Nor is it the case that we are not sparing any effort: We have a national-security apparatus perfectly comfortable monitoring basically all electronic communication, but we can’t put a tail on a guy the FBI twice had reason to suspect of being involved in terrorism?

The fact is, the federal government does not take this sort of thing very seriously at all. Consider the case of “default proceed” firearms sales. Sometimes, the FBI cannot immediately clear or rule out a would-be buyer going through a standard background check, and if the FBI can’t make a decision within three days, the sale can proceed by default. In many cases — 45,000 of them in 2000 — the government decides that the sale should have been prohibited, in which case the ATF is responsible for recovering the gun. In practice, that almost never happens: In the study of the 2000 data (the most recent available), the ATF pursued recovery of only one in nine improperly sold firearms.

This is of a piece with the priorities exemplified by the federal prosecutor’s office responsible for Chicago, which has the opportunity to prosecute hundreds of straw-buyer cases every year but as a general rule — and as a matter of policy — refuses to do so. Why? Because that’s a lot of work, and no ambitious prosecutor is going to make a name for himself locking up the kid brothers and girlfriends of Chicago gang members, just as nobody at ATF is going to get a promotion for doing rote work, even if it’s the agency’s job to do it.

We will endure endless sanctimonious speeches about what happened in Orlando, and the Obama administration will swear to us that it is doing everything it can. That is a lie. It isn’t doing everything it can — not by a long shot — and neither are the law-enforcement agencies in our cities and states.

The Islamists aren’t crazy. They understand and exploit our weaknesses, which include the inevitable vulnerabilities of an open, liberal, and democratic society. They know what they want, and they pursue those ends with the tools they have at their disposal. We cannot say as much about those we entrust with protecting us from them.


— Kevin D. Williamson is the roving correspondent for National Review