Fear Itself

Fear-mongering for electoral advantage is nothing new in US politics.  Judging by statements of the Republican Presidential candidates, fanning the flames of fear will be a central tactic in 2016 campaigns. While fear-mongering about terrorism is bad enough, many of the GOP candidates’ policy prescriptions (carpet bombing, banning Muslims) would actually make Americans less safe.

V.I. Lenin said “The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize.”  The targets of terrorism are not the victims killed in the attack; the actual targets are the governments and populations who the terrorist hopes to provoke into acting in counter-productive ways.  For example, ISIS hopes to provoke western countries generally and the US in particular into actions that would reinforce their propaganda of the west waging war on Islam and the clash of civilizations.

As a former threat analyst (yes, that really is a job title), I believe we must think and act rationally, recognizing that terrorism does not pose an existential threat to the US. No terrorist army can defeat the US Armed Forces in battle or occupy the US. Even the most severe terrorist outrages cannot fundamentally alter our system of government or our way of life, unless we acquiesce in our own victimization by supporting bigots, buffoons and blowhards who “promise” to keep us “safe.”

So what are we doing to defeat ISIS, and why don’t we do more? At present we are deploying airpower and Special Operations forces in support of coalition forces to target ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. The areas that ISIS controls have been diminished. Committing excessive levels of US conventional forces would be a huge mistake. As Congressman Jim Himes has pointed out, there are actors in the region who have a far greater incentive to oppose ISIS than we do, and indigenous forces will be more effective in the long run.

ISIS is a Sunni Arab phenomenon and it is in the US interest that the coalition that engages it be composed primarily of Sunnis. This represents more than just a desire to have the Sunnis clean up their own mess. Having the US or (Iranian-backed) Shiite forces engage will further alienate Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, thus adding to ISIS’s strength in those regions. Recent actions by Saudi Arabia (bombing in Yemen, executing a Shiite cleric), which exacerbate the Sunni-Shia divide, play into ISIS hands.

Domestically, ISIS poses primarily an indirect threat, via self-radicalized individuals, many of whom appear to be mentally unstable, deeply alienated or both.  Addressing this will require action on two fronts: first, outreach to the Muslim community to identify and intervene with those at risk before they become a serious problem. Needless to say, talk of banning Muslims and closing places of worship will not encourage essential cooperation from the community.

Second, limit access to high-powered weaponry for those who pose a threat. Gov. Malloy has rightly led on this to deny access to firearms to those on the no-fly terrorist watch-list.

The Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee supplies this column.