15 Years, And An Eternity

Today is the 15th anniversary of 9/11.  On this quiet Sunday, many Americans will recall the horror of that awful day, the nightmarish quality of the footage of crashing planes and burning, collapsing buildings, and the heroism of those who responded to the worst attack against the United States since Pearl Harbor.

dsc03553Fifteen years is not a long time, but it’s long enough to begin to assess the historical significance of 9/11 — and it is becoming clear that our world was dramatically changed, and probably permanently, on that fateful day.  In the years since, terrorist attacks on America and the rest of western world have, unfortunately, become commonplace.  An enormous security apparatus has been created to try to protect us from future assaults, and in our zeal to achieve such protection we’ve authorized incursions into our personal liberties that would not have seemed plausible during the carefree ’90s.  We’re routinely scanned, videotaped, patted down, and probed these days.  And the threat of terrorism and security issues also have created new perspectives on formerly run of the mill political issues — like immigration.

When 9/11 happened, it was a terrible shock, but we did not know what the future would bring.  There was resolution, of course, but also a sense of hope — hope that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda could be defeated, and hope that the world could return to what it was.  Now we have 15 years of history under our belts, and it seems that such hopes will not be realized.  Even as the fight against terrorism has killed bin Laden and decimated al Qaeda, new groups like ISIS, fueled by a hateful perversion of the Islamic faith, have sprung up and become committed to destroying western culture and imposing violent, intolerant, medieval policies in its place.  With each new shooting, bombing, and attack in San Bernardino, or Paris, or Brussels, all committed by people radicalized by their indoctrination into dark ideologies, it becomes increasingly apparent that this is not a fight that can be conclusively declared to be won, but instead a long, constant struggle against loathsome groups, cells, and individuals that just want to inflict harm and are perfectly comfortable with killing innocents to achieve their twisted goals.  America and its western allies simply need to continue that desperate fight against the forces of evil.

Fifteen years later, we are dealing with a sobering reality.  Fifteen years is not a long time, but the world of 9/10 seems like an eternity ago.

Both Eyes Blind

In the wake of the deadliest mass killing in U.S. history in which more than 50 innocent people died, in the aftermath of the terrible carnage at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, you would think, or at least hope, that the country could come together.  But you would be wrong.  If anything, the slaughter exposes a country more fractured than ever.

At one point on the political spectrum, the attack is presented as all about guns and gun control.  At another point, it’s all about radical Islam.  But the two sides don’t connect.

pulse-orlando-shooting-001_custom-afcf8cd831a4547d9b4465462bcea412bd660ffd-s1100-c15The people who blame the NRA and gun manufacturers are seemingly unwilling to even acknowledge that there is a radical strain of Islam that not only has fomented the hate-filled, misogynistic world of ISIS, but also violently opposes the western world and the tolerant values we embody and is looking to bring the fight to our shores.  The people who focus solely on radical Islam, on the other hand, won’t concede that something is wrong when one man whose behavior has become increasingly troubling, and who was targeted in several terrorist investigations, can somehow acquire a gun that allows him, with a few squeezes of a trigger, to send out a fusillade of bullets that can kill and injure few more than 100 people in a few bloody minutes.

There’s a middle ground here, but no one seems interested in finding it.

On one side, people need to acknowledge that certain strains of radical Islam present a real problem that needs to be addressed.  If we allow concerns about political correctness to prevent us from even talking directly about the issue, if we couch our discussions in oblique terms about what “we” need to do as a society rather than focusing on the specific problem, how can we ever hope to develop a solution?  Emoticons and lighting candles aren’t going to change the paradigm.  And we need to recognize that the shackles imposed by our zeal to achieve maximal inoffensiveness come at a cost — in the form of Donald Trump, whose appeal for many is due in part to his willingness to break through the PC barriers.  Trump’s unseemly and ignorant self-congratulation in the wake of the Pulse massacre was a vintage example of his colossal ego and intrinsic bad taste, but his followers undoubtedly are nodding at the fact that their candidate at least is talking about the issue, whereas other leaders seem to be living in a kind of PC fantasy world.

On the other side, the gun ownership advocates need to acknowledge that we’ve moved beyond the self-protection and sportsman’s paradise rationales for American gun ownership, and technology has pushed the envelope even farther.  With guns available that allow a lone killer to shoot down dozens of innocent people in an incredibly short period of time — before even the speediest law enforcement agency could possibly hope to respond and intervene — the stakes for some kind of meaningful and rational approach to gun ownership are higher than ever.  No family looking to defend their home against an intruder, and no hunter out looking to take down a deer, needs to acquire a weapon that allows them to fire off dozens of shots in the space of a few blinks of an eye.

The Pulse massacre teaches us that we need to work on both of these issues — but first the two sides need to recognize that the two issues actually exist.  Don’t hold your breath.

Our Muslim Friends

Kish and I have friends and acquaintances who happen to be Muslims. We’ve shared meals with them and celebrated special events with them.  They live in our town, have worked with us, and are related to our friends.  They are people we know and like and trust.  We don’t fear them because Islam is their religion.

IRAQI-AMERICAN MUSLIMS CELEBRATE IN DEARBORN OUSTER OF HUSSEINI’m quite sure that we’re not unusual in knowing and working with Muslims.  America still remains a melting pot where people of different nationalities, colors, and faiths can come and pursue their dreams, without being shackled by caste systems or tribal ancestry or corrupt political systems.  In America, a person’s religious faith is just one aspect of their persona.  It doesn’t immutably define them, and it certainly shouldn’t cause them to be targeted.

That’s why comments like the one Ted Cruz made yesterday are so . . . appalling.  In the wake of the latest ISIS-supported bombings, in Brussels, Cruz said that “we need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized,” and that America cannot be confined by “political correctness.”   But America isn’t like Europe, where in many cities Muslim immigrants live in separate neighborhoods, never learn the language, and never become integrated.  What would define a “Muslim neighborhood” in America?  Would Hamtramck, Michigan, be one?  That’s America’s first majority Muslim city — and it also happens to be where our son Russell lives and works.  How would police patrols “secure” such “Muslim neighborhoods” and prevent them from becoming “radicalized”?  Does anyone really think that police car drive-bys or foot patrols are going to keep receptive young men and women from falling prey to the terrorist teachings of ISIS?  And while I think there are times when political correctness can run amok, it isn’t “political correctness” that prevents targeting people because of their religion — it’s basic American principles that flow from the First Amendment.

I’m as interested as anyone in defeating ISIS, but we have to focus on the terrorists, not their religion.  People are more likely to become radicalized when they are disaffected, and dividing people and targeting “Muslim neighborhoods” with a heavily armed police presence sure seems like a good recipe for creating disaffected people.  The better course, I think, is to do what America always does — accept people, welcome them, and let them pursue their dreams in a country that is free and full of opportunity for all — and then make sure that we find and crush the terrorists who are slaughtering innocents because of some sick and twisted ideology.

Empty Symbolism

I came home tonight to news of another horrific terrorist attack today, this time at the airport and train terminal in Brussels.  As with other terrorist attacks, the responsibility for this atrocity was claimed by ISIS.  And as I watched the news to catch up on what had happened, I saw stories about how other countries in Europe were “showing solidarity” with Belgium, because the Eiffel Tower and the Trevi Fountain and, probably, other European landmarks were illuminated with the colors of the Belgium flag.

56f1cf08c361881c2c8b45e3Am I the only person who has had it with this kind of empty symbolism?  I guess we’re all supposed to be deeply moved by the projection of the Belgian flag.  Hey, while we’re at it, let’s have a Facebook app that allows us to change our profile pictures to use the Belgian colors!  And maybe we can come up with a few good Twitter hashtags, too, like when the primary response to the African terrorists who were kidnapping young girls and selling them into slavery was a “freeourgirls” hashtag?  Boy, a really good hashtag will teach those ISIS guys not to mess with us!

I understand the desire to show solidarity with innocent people who have been attacked.  But at some point projected flag colors and hashtags and statements of Facebook support are pointless.  ISIS doesn’t give a flying fig what the trending hashtags are or whether the Trevi Fountain is bathed in the Belgian colors.

Are we going to try to defeat these guys, or are we just hoping we can out-symbolize them?

An Encouraging Development In The Fight Against ISIS

Here’s some good news to start the new year:  some Muslims are publicly and pointedly making fun of ISIS, the murderous, beheading terrorist organization that wants to establish a caliphate in the Middle East.

footage-al-baghdadis-friday-speech-which-he-appears-be-wearing-rolex-twitterThe fun began when the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — who curiously sported a Rolex in one of his prior public appearances — issued a recorded statement about the state of ISIS on the day after Christmas that said, among other things, “We urgently call upon every Muslim to join the fight.”  His statement was translated and released on social media — and then Muslims began making hilarious responses to his call:

“Sorry, bro.  Mom made pizza rolls”

“I wanna wait until April and find out what happened to Jon Snow”

“sorry but this Big Mac isn’t eating itself”

“You should have told me before. I just renewed my pornhub subscription.”

“Sorry, I’m busy being a real Muslim, giving to charity etc. Also, your dental plan sucks.”

You can read the translated statements and the reactions here

Why is this encouraging and significant?  Because while military action is obviously needed to defeat the ISIS forces on the ground, the only sure way to really defeat radical Islamic terrorism long-term is to cut it off at its roots, by having Muslims everywhere reject the evil ISIS represents and thereby deprive the group of new recruits.  And when ISIS is trying to present itself as a formidable and intimidating force that represents the true Islamic faith, public mockery is a pretty effective weapon.

When an act of radical Islamic terrorism occurs, people often wonder why moderate Muslim religious leaders don’t publicly condemn the actions and the killing of innocents.  I’m not sure why the religious leaders aren’t more vocal, but it’s good to see that, in the world of social media, Muslims are speaking out and puncturing the titanic ISIS pretensions with humor.

Redefining “Success”

John Kirby, a spokesman for the United States Department of State, has published a “year in review” piece on the Department’s official blog.  He notes that while “the year was not without challenges,” the “United States has helped to change the world for the better” and adds:  “Our diplomats have been busy, and they have met with significant success across a range of issues.”  He then gives his “take” on them using “a great hashtag — #2015in5Words — which was recently trending on Twitter.”

One of the #2015in5Words items Kirby lists is “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria.”

syrian-refugees-opener-6151Huh?  Syria?  The Syria where a bloody civil war between the terrorist forces of ISIS and the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has provoked a huge refugee crisis?  The Syria where significant parts of the control are under the control of a deadly terrorist group and where fighting is going on, even now?  The Syria where every big power is flexing its muscle and where, thanks to the support of Russia and Iran, it looks like the murderous Assad might conceivably stay in power?

How does Kirby explain that the U.S. was involved in “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria”?  He doesn’t, really.  He says only that the U.S. has “stepped up to aid the Syrian people during their time of need” and that “the UN Security Council passed a U.S.-sponsored resolution that puts forward a roadmap that will facilitate a transition within Syria to a credible, inclusive, nonsectarian government that is responsive to the needs of the Syrian people.”  Americans should be proud of their traditional generosity to others, of course, but neither increased aid or the passage of a preliminary United Nations Security Council resolution can reasonably be characterized as “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria” in the face of intense ongoing fighting.

Oh, and another “success” included by Kirby is “Winning Fight Against Violent Extremists.”  It touts the “Summit on Countering Violent Terrorism” hosted by the White House in February 2015 and says “this monumental summit launched an ongoing global CVE effort now underway that reaches throughout the world and across countless nations” that ultimately will lead to the defeat of ISIS.  Seriously?  We’re supposed to count a summit meeting that barely hit the news as a success?  Only a flack could say, in the wake of the events in Paris, San Bernardino, and other locations of horrific terrorist actions in 2015, that we are “winning fight against violent extremists.”

Diplomats are supposed to have credibility, but when you’re searching for “success” and trying to present your case in 5-word hashtags that were recently trending on social media, this is what you get.  Maybe there’s a reason the Department of State’s official blog is called “Dipnote.”

Further Vetting The Vetting

In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, officials are looking at whether they may have missed clues that could have predicted the murderous death spree of Syed Rizwa Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik.  And it appears that some blazing red flags were, in fact, not seen, and that the immigrant screening process employed by the United States is not, in fact, as foolproof as some advocates have represented.

The biggest missed clues were social media posts.  As the New York Times recently reported, Tashfeen Malik had talked openly on social media posts about her support for violent jihad and her interest in being part of it.  However, the agencies charged with deciding whether she should be permitted to enter the United States never saw those posts because “immigration officials do not routinely review social media as part of their background checks, and there is a debate inside the Department of Homeland Security over whether it is even appropriate to do so.”

tashfeen-malik-l-and-syed-farook-are-pictured-passing-through-chicagos-ohare-international-airport-in-this-july-27-2014-handout-photo-obtained-by-reuters-december-8-2015-reutersus-customs-and-border-pStrange, isn’t it, that in our modern, internet-obsessed age, where many people share their innermost thoughts and views on-line, that social media posts of an applicant for entry to the U.S. aren’t reviewed as a matter of course to search for violent, pro-terrorist, or anti-American sentiments?  Wouldn’t you think that unprompted social media posts are much more likely to yield insights into a would-be immigrant’s true feelings than the answers given at a stilted, formal interview with a consular official?  And it’s not as if the jihadists are shy about sharing their views on social media — after all, ISIS and other Islamic terror groups actively use the internet as a recruiting mechanism and are happy to post videos of beheadings and other bloody activities as part of their recruitment campaigns.

What’s most troubling about the New York Times article linked above is the “debate” within the government about whether it is “even appropriate” to look at social media in the visa application process.  The concluding paragraph of the Times article, apparently seeking to explain the reluctance to review social media, states:  “Social media comments, by themselves, however, are not always definitive evidence. In Pakistan — as in the United States — there is no shortage of crass and inflammatory language. And it is often difficult to distinguish Islamist sentiments and those driven by political hostility toward the United States.”

Such justifications make no sense to me.  Sure, social media posts endorsing violence might not be “definitive evidence” (whatever that means) that the writer will become a mass-murdering terrorist, but don’t we want to even check on whether someone seeking entry to our country has voiced such sentiments, and if so build that undoubtedly relevant information into our decision-making process — and maybe ask a question or two about such statements in that stilted interview?   Why take a head-in-the-sand approach to available information.

And why the curious concern about whether it is “appropriate” to look at social media postings?  After all, social media posts are public statements, available to the world.  Companies routinely review social media postings as part of the job application process, and parents counsel their children to consider how that Facebook picture of their embarrassing behavior at a boozy party might be perceived by a prospective employer.  Yet the delicate sensibilities within our government are worried that it might not be “appropriate” to look at whether the likes of Tashfeen Malik have expressed violent, anti-American views before they decide to let them enter the country?

It’s bad enough that Farook and Malik were motivated to gun down innocents in San Bernardino in furtherance of their own, twisted beliefs.  It would be inexcusable if the government did not learn from the process by which Malik gained entry and use those lessons to improve our immigration protocols and enhance the information-gathering process.  Establishing a mechanism for reviewing public social media posts of visa applicants would be a good place to start.