I think about terrorism all the time. Not because I feel personally unsafe. But because I know who’s out there: Folks who want a civilizational war.
In the wake of this weekend’s bombings in New York and New Jersey, I also know this is a particularly opportune moment for their narrative.
Some of these agitators are white, radical right-wingers, who preach about an ethnically and religiously pure America. They want to Donald Trump to be America’s next president.
Some are Islamic extremists, who want the West destroyed. These radicals of a different sort also want Trump to win, albeit for different reasons.
Trump is already using this weekend’s attacks to promote his narrative. It’s the wrong one. Not only because it won’t keep us safe—but because the US is already getting safer. We need to build on this momentum, not halt it. In the midst of our response to this weekend’s attacks in New Jersey, New York, and Minnesota, let’s not forget a few simple facts. We are fighting a war against extremist groups, and in the most important aspect of that conflict—fighting ISIL—we are winning.
But we can’t declare victory without Muslims’ help.
The US went to war with Iraq on the back of falsified evidence. This decision may well be the worst foreign policy mistake in American history. We can’t pretend this mistake never happened, but we also don’t have to keep making it worse. If we want to do more than continue a cycle of radicalization and targeted killings—a strategy that is as immoral as it is unhelpful—the US must have a bigger long-term strategy in mind.
It’d be bad enough to elect as US president a man who flirts with white supremacists right after electing the first African American president. Forget a Middle East bedeviled by ancient hatreds: People in glass houses should not throw stones. It’d be even worse if we followed some positive momentum in the struggle against religious extremism by adding fuel to a dying fire. The absolute worst thing we could do right now is to give in to xenophobia, Islamophobia, and nativism.
The values that Donald Trump represents will harm more than just the West’s Muslims, or the Muslim world. If we want to win the battle against terrorism, we need to reduce the number of our enemies—which we can do by encouraging people on the fence to come to our side, even as we weaken extremists. This seems like common sense to me, but then again, as my dad often warned me, common sense is not so common.
An effective coalition against ISIL must include a respectful and cooperative partnership with Muslim-majority nations. ISIL is just one terrorist organization. If we want to make sure that no uglier, nastier, more dangerous group rises up to replace it, we can’t just drop bombs. The West must transform how it relates to the Muslim world, and how it approaches the Middle East in general.
Policymakers need to develop strategies to help heal Iraq and stop the bloodshed in Syria. The Middle East must be stabilized, not terrorized. Just as fragile or collapsing states create huge, sucking vacuums, prosperous, inclusive, resilient societies radiate strength and reinforce nations around themselves. The US must spend less time selling weapons to regimes that do not share our best values, and more time investing in governments that do. And American politicians who do.
We still don’t know all the details about this weekend’s attacks. But the fact that the suspect basically made no attempt to cover his tracks, and that he was apparently found after passing out in the doorway of a bar, suggests that this was not a sophisticated enemy. We’re fighting a bunch of losers.
And as the flow of foreign fighters dries up, we can expect a corresponding decline in the menace of those opposed to us. If this is the best extremists can do, we should remain vigilant. But we should not exaggerate the threat against us—an exaggeration that will push us to respond with unnecessary vehemence, and destroy the progress we’ve made.
The more violent extremism becomes the monopoly of the utterly unimpressive, the sooner it’ll wither and die.