Fighting Terror by Self-Reproach

By Bret Stephens

Wall Street Journal

December 7, 2015


Nobody who watched Barack Obama’s speech Sunday night outlining his strategy to defeat Islamic State could have come away disappointed by the performance. Disappointment presupposes hope for something better. That ship sailed, and sank, a long time ago.

By now we are familiar with the cast of Mr. Obama’s mind. He does not make a case; he preaches a moral. He mistakes repetition for persuasion. He does not struggle with the direction, details or trade-offs of policy because he’s figured them all out. His policies never fail; it’s our patience that he finds wanting. He asks not what he can do for his country but what his country can do for him.

And what’s that? It is for us to see what has long been obvious to him, like an exasperated teacher explaining simple concepts to a classroom of morons. Anyone? Anyone?

That’s why nearly everything the president said last night he has said before, and in the same shopworn phrases. His four-point strategy for defeating ISIS is unchanged. His habit of telling us—and our enemies—what he isn’t going to do dates back to the earliest days of his presidency. His belief that terrorism is another gun-control issue draws on the deep wells of liberal true belief. His demand for a symbolic congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force is at least a year old, though as recently as 2013 he was demanding that Congress kill the AUMF altogether. Back then he was busy boasting that al Qaeda was on a path to defeat.

The more grating parts of Mr. Obama’s speech came when he touched on the subject of Islam and Muslims. “We cannot,” he intoned, “turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam.” Terrorism, as he sees it, is to be feared less for the harm it causes than for the overreaction it risks eliciting.

This is the president as master of the pre-emptive self-reproach—the suggestion that Americans are always on the verge of returning to the wickedness whence we came. But since when have we turned against one another, or defined the war on terror as a war on Islam?

Syed Rizwan Farook, a heavily bearded and openly devout Muslim, was a county employee in good standing with his colleagues who didn’t raise an eyebrow until he and his foreign bride opened fire in San Bernardino. The first 48 hours of the investigation amounted to a nationwide flight from the obvious, a heroic exercise in cultural sensitivity and intellectual restraint, as every motive except for jihad was mooted as a potential explanation for mass murder. Had Farook’s wife not sworn allegiance to ISIS moments before the attack, we might still be debating whether an act of Islamist terrorism had really happened.

On Sunday the Italian newspaper La Stampa carried an interview with Farook’s father, also named Syed. “My son said that he shared [ISIS leader Abu Bakr] Al Baghdadi’s ideology and supported the creation of Islamic State,” the elder Farook told correspondent Paolo Mastrolilli. “He was also obsessed with Israel.”

The father went on to explain that he had tried to reason with his son by saying that Israel would no longer exist in a couple of years and that the Jews would soon be returning to Ukraine, so there was no need to take up arms for jihad. “But he did not listen to me, he was obsessed.”

Now the Farook family professes utter shock at what’s happened. How can they be shocked? How did we become a society in which a son tells his father that he supports ISIS and it fails to register with this ostensibly integrated Muslim family, living the American dream, that perhaps a call to the FBI would be appropriate?

Here’s how we became that society: By pretending that the extreme branch of Islam to which Farook plainly belonged is a protected religion rather than a dangerous ideology. By supposing that it is somehow immoral to harbor graver reservations about 10,000 refugees from Syria or Iraq than, say, New Zealand. By being so afraid to give moral offense that we neglect to play the most elementary form of defense.

If you see something, say something, goes the ubiquitous slogan. But heaven help you if what you see and say turns out to be the wrong something—an alarm clock, for instance, as opposed to a bomb.

This is President Obama’s vision of society, and it is why he delivered this sterile, scolding homily that offered no serious defense against the next jihadist massacre. We have become a country that doesn’t rouse itself to seriousness except when a great many people are murdered. Fourteen deaths apparently isn’t going to move the policy needle, as far as this president is concerned. Will 1,400?