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America on Edge

from the magazine

America on Edge

Concerns about terrorism return to the forefront of national politics. Winter 2016
Public safety

America was on edge during the holiday season. The mass shooting in San Bernardino by an Islamic married couple, which killed 14 people, was the deadliest terror strike in the United States since 9/11. It followed the dramatic suicide attacks in Paris, the downing of a Russian plane in Egypt, and an assault on a hotel favored by Westerners in far-flung Bamako, Mali. In mid-December, Los Angeles shut down its 1,087 schools for a day, after receiving a terror threat.

Forty percent of those surveyed in a Wall Street Journal / NBC News poll in mid-December said that terrorism and national security should be the government’s top priority; 60 percent cited one or the other in their top two concerns, up from just 39 percent eight months earlier. Some 25 percent said that they worried that they or their family would be a victim of a terror attack; 60 percent disapproved of President Barack Obama’s handling of the Islamic State, as opposed to 55 percent a year ago. Of even greater concern for Democrats in the coming elections, 70 percent said that the country was “on the wrong track.”

Obama belatedly got the message. He adopted more bellicose language in place of his earlier dismissive references to the Islamic State as the “JV team,” a threat that had been “contained.” America, Obama said, was intensifying the fight against terrorists who were on the “wrong side of history.” Seeking to calm fears and reverse antagonism toward him and his policies, Obama addressed Americans twice within a week, first from the Oval Office and then from the Pentagon. “You’re next,” he warned ISIS’s leaders in language reminiscent of his predecessor, George W. “bring it on” Bush.

Though his message toughened, Obama has doubled down on a four-prong strategy to degrade and defeat ISIS that some critics call inadequate and others warn is doomed to fail. Belatedly stepping up air strikes to a total of 9,000 has not prevented the would-be caliphate from deepening its roots in nine countries or from staging or inspiring a growing number of lethal attacks at home or abroad. While French president François Hollande told his traumatized citizens after the Paris attacks that France was “at war” with radical Islam, Obama continues to resist identifying the religious identity and motivations of America’s extremist enemy and seems deeply uncomfortable with his role as its wartime president. Though Obama has killed Osama bin Laden and decimated al-Qaida’s core leadership and infrastructure, expanded the drone war, and helped reclaim 40 percent of the land that ISIS seized in Iraq in last year’s blitzkrieg through Iraq and Syria, “the image of a risk-averse president is tough to shake,” says Aaron David Miller, a former government official now at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Nor have soothing statistics from scholars and officials sympathetic to Obama’s approach reassured Americans that the ship of state is in steady hands. Writing in Politico, Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon, former national security officials, noted that since 9/11, only 45 Americans have been killed on American soil by jihadist violence. (Before the San Bernardino slaughter, they also called American anxiety about a Paris-style attack here “unwarranted.”)

But comparative body counts miss the point. The fact that more people die slipping in bathtubs than in terror attacks does not allay concern about the nation’s vulnerability. All forms of violence are not equal. And terrorism is destabilizing because its goal, in fact, is to terrorize.

Republican presidential candidates, by contrast, have lost little time trying to capitalize on America’s anxiety. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee compared San Bernardino with Pearl Harbor. New Jersey governor Chris Christie said that America was in the “midst of the next world war.” In response to his demand that the U.S. ban the entry of all Muslims, Donald Trump saw his poll ratings surge. Exaggerating the jihadi threat may be politically advantageous, but antagonizing the Arab nations needed to fight ISIS in Syria and the largely integrated American-Muslim community, whose support is needed to help identify, isolate, and delegitimize extremists in their ranks, makes terror harder to combat.

Questions about the administration’s ability to prevent terror strikes at home have also eroded public trust in Obama. While most American employers routinely check prospective employees’ postings on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, government officials cannot routinely review direct and private messages sent through such social media. Tashfeen Malik, the female half of the San Bernardino terrorist couple, sent direct, nonpublic messages hostile to the U.S. through Facebook and a dating website before moving from Pakistan to the U.S. with a K-1, or “fiancée,” entry visa, but the government needs special authorization to access such communications. Fox News reported that Malik passed at least three background checks before being granted the visa, despite having given a false address on her visa application.

Syed Farook, by contrast, her Internet husband and jihadi partner in crime, was a homegrown fanatic. The danger of homegrown militants has been known to law enforcement and homeland security officials since 2007, when New York Police Department intelligence analysts Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt warned of the trend, in a controversial report. Many of the FBI’s 900 active investigations of potential jihadi violence—at least one in every state—are said to focus on such extremists. But President Obama has downplayed the homegrown threat, fearful of alienating Muslim-Americans.

Anxiety about terrorism has prompted policy shifts and demands for the reexamination of an appropriate balance between tolerance, protecting privacy, and preventing terror. Even before the San Bernardino attack, the Republican-led Congress seemed determined to oppose Obama’s stated desire to accept some 10,000 Syrian refugees in a year. Though none of the Syrians admitted to the U.S. as refugees has engaged in terrorism on American soil—nor have any but two of the more than 130,000 Iraqi refugees admitted since 2007—American resistance to their entry has grown. Even in liberal New York, 52 percent of registered voters in a December poll said that they oppose allowing Syrian refugees into the country.

America’s decision to restrict the bulk collection of domestic telephone data, a program run by the National Security Agency, may also be reconsidered in the wake of the terror attacks. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has urged Congress to revisit the new metadata collection law, which authorizes but does not require the nation’s telephone companies—as opposed to the NSA—to store telephone metadata and orders the NSA to destroy all such call information more than 18 months old. The old program, Rubio has said, helped prevent terror attacks.

Former CIA director General Michael V. Hayden, who also once headed the NSA, has welcomed such a review, arguing that the NSA collection program was not abused and helped thwart terror. The elimination of such programs was “self-destructive,” he said in an interview. Another tendency worries him: the potential for panic in the event of a future terrorist attack. Both underreacting and overreacting to such assaults are likely to result in bad policy, endangering security and civil liberties. Americans have too easily permitted themselves to be terrorized by terror, Hayden believes. Echoing terrorism analysts Benjamin and Simon, he worries that Americans sometimes lack what they call the “societal resilience” essential for the fight against such violence. Resilience, as Israel has shown, denies jihadis the victory they seek. Time may tell if Americans sufficiently possess it.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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