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Voices / Viewpoint

We’re fighting the enemy we created

The only way to beat the terrorists is to show by our actions, not just our words, that America is not only tolerant but welcoming to all. We have to show every day that what they say about us is a lie.

Dan DeWalt, one of the founders of this newspaper, writes, teaches, performs music, works with wood, and advocates tirelessly and passionately for the causes in which he believes.


The United States is spewing out the war rhetoric. Anti-Obama-ites say that ISIS poses a new threat, that the president created that threat by his lack of martial fervor, that ISIS has declared war on the “homeland” itself, that the world has changed (yet again).

Have they forgotten that Osama bin Laden very publicly declared war on the U.S. after our troops stayed in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War? We paid little heed to his threat, but he developed Al Qaeda, and they eventually found their way to the attacks on 9/11.

After the second war on Iraq, Al Qaeda in Iraq emerged to fill the void left by Paul Bremer’s demobilized Iraqi army. When it started to go on the offensive, Al Qaeda in Iraq changed its name to Islamic State, referred to in the United States as ISIS or ISIL.

So there is a terrible continuity between the current threat from ISIS, and that which bin Laden made three presidents before this one.

* * *

The terrorists are eager for the United States to declare war; it would be a perfect fuel for their apocalyptic mission. With martyred fighters for inspiration and civilian casualties to fuel rage, ISIS could count on future fighters to replace them even if they are all killed.

John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz, and many others in both parties want to take the fight to ISIS over there so “we don’t have to do it at home.”

They know that doing so will mean thousands of innocent civilian deaths and great suffering for an entire region. They will willingly perpetuate this death and suffering in order to pretend to prevent any potential American loss of life.

Morally, this is obscene.

The people who live under the yoke of ISIS or others, like Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, are already suffering beyond what most Americans could imagine. Their lives matter no less than ours.

To advocate trading their lives for a foolish illusion of our safety at home is cruel, naïve, and disastrously counterproductive.

* * *

Obama seems to understand the foolhardy nature of an all-out ground war, but his preferred method is only marginally better.

Every Tuesday morning when he goes to the who-are-we-going-to-kill-by-drone-this-week? meeting, he knows that for every dead jihadi, there will be a replacement ready to be martyred.

And for every innocent murdered — “collateral damage” is the only accepted term — there will be countless numbers of people in the world who grow more bitter towards the U.S. and who will have more tolerance for radicalism in their midst.

Unlike our politicians, these victims don’t seem to be civilized enough to know that using a drone “signature strike” to blow up civilians and militants into little pieces is morally superior and forgivable, compared to barbarically beheading someone with a sword.

All they know is that they are being targeted because of their faith and their geography. And they are disinclined to dissuade young men from fighting back.

* * *

Obama at least seems to understand that it is already too late to prevent terror attacks by homegrown Americans who have become radicalized in response to current events. As we have learned about the San Bernardino murderers, they had been radicalized for a number of years, and it would be folly not to think that there are others like them, biding their time in obscurity until they, too, have an opportunity to act.

ISIS’s greatest strength is its propaganda. It has invested heavily in human and economic resources to radicalize people over the Internet. It needs the United States to be a large and worthy enemy if it wants to rally jihadi fighters and would-be terrorists.

If the United States is so foolish as to take the bait and “carpet bomb ISIS” (Ted Cruz) or “blow up the refineries [until] there would be nothing left” (Donald Trump), then we will be fulfilling ISIS’s most fervent wish.

ISIS knows how difficult it is to infiltrate terrorists into the U.S. from abroad, where every border or security check has the potential to disrupt its efforts. Its members know that the most effective way to instill terror in our hearts is for us to be attacked from within by our own citizens.

ISIS want us to stop trusting one another, to become suspicious of every activity that takes place around us. It especially wants the nation as a whole to target Muslims as a group and Islam as a religion. ISIS needs a solid basis of discontent for Muslims to have any chance that some of them might become radicalized and launch attacks in the U.S.

* * *

Since the attacks on 9/11, compared to 385,000 gun deaths in this country, there have been fewer than 500 deaths by terrorist attacks. About half of those have been the work of right-wing or Christian extremists, and about half have been linked to Islamic extremists.

Yet the national conversation is about how many of our civil liberties we will jettison in exchange for an illusion of safety. Don’t we understand that if indeed the terrorists hate us for our freedoms, as we’re so often told, then to abridge those freedoms at first chance we will be playing right into their hands?

ISIS will be winning an ideological war with far greater effect than it will from territorial gains in the Maghreb.

The only way to beat the terrorists is to show by our actions, not just our words, that America is not only tolerant but welcoming to all. We have to show every day that what they say about us is a lie.

This will not be easy, because our actions often belie our ideals.

Every time a mosque is vandalized or another young Black person is killed by the police, or some fool of a politician tries to close the borders or bar refugees from his state, every time a young family of color finds themselves not welcomed in a neighborhood, every time a man wearing Guccis can’t be bothered to drop some money in a homeless person’s hat, every time that Americans choose not to live up to the American ideals emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, and instead succumb to our baser instincts of xenophobia, prejudice, greed and mistrust, we are sowing the seeds to our own destruction.

The genocide of Native Americans and the taking of their land and its riches led us to believe that we were destined to rule the Earth.

Our belief in slavery led to the Civil War.

Our white privilege has led to generations of suffering and turmoil that continues to this day.

If we choose now to fan the flames of prejudice and intolerance, if we treat Brown, Black, and Muslim Americans (and immigrants) as potential enemies to be walled out or watched, if we plunge into another military quagmire, then we won’t be safe and we will be sorry.

We can’t really embrace and repeat our worst mistakes all over again.

Can we?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #337 (Wednesday, December 23, 2015). This story appeared on page E1.

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