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Preempting Jihad or Just Republicans?

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Listening to the president’s remarks the other day, after meeting with his national security advisors in the wake of the Orlando attack, I was struck by the scolding tone he adopted at the end, seemingly evincing more anger at Republicans and conservatives for their criticism of him than at the jhadists in the Middle East inciting violent attacks in the U.S. The problem isn’t that President Obama is wrong on the need for all of us to keep our heads in this time of continued attacks by jihadists or that we don’t need to keep the larger picture in mind and avoid demonizing other Americans, or other human beings more generally, just because they happen to be Muslim. Of course we shouldn’t do any of that — and most of us have no desire to. But the increasingly damaging spate of extremist attacks, both against this country and abroad, surely demand more of a response than the kind of moralizing lectures President Obama seems to feel called upon to deliver after these kinds of events.

He’s our president, our leader, after all and he should be rallying us, speaking for us as well as to us, while laying out the steps we must and will take to defeat the ISIS scourge. Lecturing his fellow Americans on our deficiencies, particularly in the prickly way he tends invariably to adopt, just seems utterly out of place.

There’s a time for schooling, of course. But also a time for exhortation and for rallying cries and for calls to arms, a time for the leader of an angry and troubled nation to bring us together in a common cause to defend ourselves and put an end to the threat that looms over us. Instead this president seems forever intent on delivering teaching moments — and lambasting his political opponents. His real ire always seems to be directed at Republicans rather than at the enemies of this nation.

Obviously, given recent events and most especially the horrific shooting in Orlando over the weekend, whatever we’ve been doing on this president’s watch to address jihadism isn’t working. The number of attacks by jihadists, lone wolves or not, has risen markedly during Obama’s tenure. So surely this is a time for the president to say why what hasn’t worked hasn’t, and to offer us another way. What’s our next step, what haven’t we done up till now but which we can now accomplish to finally make a difference and restore a semblance of tranquility and ease to the nation?

Throughout this president’s two terms, political correctness has seemed to govern our responses to jihadism — a political correctness fostered by the president’s own statements and reinforced by the words of his officials. It has hamstrung our investigative and police agencies as, time after time, radicalized Muslims who have given ample signs of their radicalization in advance of their attacks (signs that could have been easily seen) have simply slipped through the cracks. Major Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood shooter had a long history of Islamicist statements made to his colleagues and in the course of doing his job as well as known contacts with radical jihadists overseas. These were in evidence long before he shot up the offices he shared at Fort Hood while shouting allahu akhbar and gunning down fellow soldiers. His superiors had ignored his extremely troubling history and past behavioral oddities, giving him good personnel evaluations as he moved up the army’s career ladder.

The murderous couple in San Bernadino, who shot up office colleagues at a Christmas Party, had a history, too. So did the Tsarnaev brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon finishing line a couple of years ago. Now we learn that this latest jihadist, the Orlando shooter, also had a history. He was twice investigated by the FBI for suspected jihadist links and sympathies and twice given a clean bill of health and surveillance of him halted, allowing him, like the others, to slip through the same cracks. What’s gone wrong?

As some have already noted, the message from this administration has continuously reflected a decision from the highest levels of our government to avoid targeting ethnic groups, Muslims in particular, despite the fact that jihadism is a distinctly Muslim phenomenon. If you must check suspicious persons, the message to investigators has been, do it randomly without regard to appearances or background (don’t pay attention to the Islamic aspects about a suspect, even when those aspects reflect affinities with Islamic jihadism because it may be seen as singling out Muslims). And if you find nothing obvious when you do look, wipe the record clean and look away again. Don’t persist. Send grandma through the toughest screening at airports but leave that young Muslim fellow who might be standing nearby alone because, well, we don’t want him to feel targeted. Absent a smoking gun (which you usually don’t have until everyone’s already been shot in these kinds of situations) our investigative agencies seem to have been given standing orders to close the books on cases where there’s nothing more than circumstantial stuff.

We’re all presumed innocent until proven guilty before the law, of course, and that’s a sound policy to follow in matters of criminal prosecution. But America’s investigators under the Obama administration seem to have been told to apply these same standards to intelligence investigations which intended not to find and prosecute miscreants but to preempt them, to stop terrorist attacks before they can occur. The promise of vigorous prosecution and imprisonment for terrorist acts after they are done is no deterrent to those seeking martyrdom yet this law enforcement model has prevailed for nearly eight years now, under Obama, while terrorist attacks here at home have begun to seem common place. When your main concern is not to make a link between Islam and terrorism, that’s the sort of thing you end up seeing, of course.

Speaking shortly after the Orlando attack, the president had much to say about who we are and how we should think about those in our midst who are part of the Muslim community. But he offered little new in the way of solutions to the ongoing Islamic crisis that afflicts the country and the wider world. “The Orlando killer,” he said, “one of the San Bernardino killers, the Fort Hood killer — they were all U.S. citizens. Are we going to start treating all Muslim-Americans differently? Are we going to start subjecting them to special surveillance? Are we going to start to discriminate against them, because of their faith?” But no one is demanding that. What many of us do want, though, is vigorous attention to suspicious activity, especially in communities where jihadism is rampant. Alluding to the GOP presidential primaries, the president turned quickly to his political foes as he so often does: “We heard these suggestions during the course of this campaign. Do Republican officials actually agree with this? . . . It betrays the very values America stands for.” He added: “We have gone through moments in our history before, when we acted out of fear, and we came to regret it. We have seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens, and it has been a shameful part of our history.”

It’s hard to argue with that and yet our nation is increasingly under attack as the president worries not about stopping the mayhem but stopping Americans from expressing their anger about it, even changing the subject from jihadism to gun control! His concerns are well taken and yet his tone, the petulant and prickly way in which he voices these thoughts speaks volumes. They tell us he is angrier at those who want to hit back at jihadists, or preemptively find and stop them, than at the jihadists themselves.

Something has gone seriously wrong when our president’s words are directed at scolding Americans rather than stopping the people who would attack us.

About Stuart W. Mirsky

Profile photo of Stuart W. Mirsky
Stuart W. Mirsky, a former New York City official who last served as Assistant Commissioner for Operations in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before retiring in 2002, wrote a column, "The Rockaway Irregular," for The Wave, a south Queens based weekly, for more than a decade (until Hurricane Sandy changed the equation). He is an original founder of the Rockaway Republicans, one of the most active Republican groups in southern Queens, and author of a number of books, including The King of Vinland's Saga, an historical novel of the Norse in 11th century North America, A Raft on the River, a memoir of Holocaust survival, and Choice and Action, a work of contemporary philosophy addressing the implications of relativism and nihilism for our moral beliefs.

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