It didn’t take long after news broke of Tuesday’s terrorist bombings in Brussels for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to politicize the attack and issue a call on Facebook urging his fellow Americans “to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” What these new “patrol and secure” powers would be or how they would jibe with the Constitution, Cruz didn’t say. But his post reinforced an observation I have long held that those who claim to love the Constitution more than the rest of us are also the ones who seem most likely to abandon it in a panic.
Cruz’s posturing was just one of several unhelpful reactions to Tuesday’s bombings in Belgium that killed 31 people and wounded 270 others. The response from Republican U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Austin, for example, was wearily familiar: Brussels was bombed. Seal the border with Mexico!
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Brussels bombings and on Wednesday warned of additional attacks in the West. Two of three suicide bombers were brothers born in Belgium. A third suicide bomber was a Belgian born in Morocco. The three may have been part of a cell that also carried out the attacks in Paris in November that killed 130 people.
In 2008, scholars with the RAND Corporation produced a study, “How Terrorist Groups End,” that surveyed the fates of numerous terrorist organizations worldwide since 1968. Most terrorist groups end either because they eventually decide to join the political process, the study’s authors found, or because police and intelligence agencies arrest or kill a group’s key members. While the military has a role to play in the fight against terrorism, and sometimes the role can be large, the study’s authors concluded that terrorism is most effectively attacked as a political and criminal act rather than as an act of war. They called for a fundamental rethinking of America’s post-9/11 counter-terrorism strategy, starting with trashing the phrase “war on terrorism.” After all, you can’t defeat an abstract noun.
The Islamic State is not abstract. It is a religious terrorist organization as well as a rebel army that governs parts of Iraq and Syria. As a religious terrorist organization, it is even harder to defeat than groups that are exclusively political, and thus is a difficult law enforcement and intelligence challenge. As a rebel army, it can be pushed out of territory it occupies. And, in fact, the Islamic State has lost more than a fifth of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria.
Cruz and Donald Trump promise to bomb the Islamic State into oblivion if elected president, though at what cost or sacrifice they don’t say. I don’t mean to be overly pessimistic, but I don’t think anyone should be under any illusion that a President Cruz or a President Trump — or a President Hillary Clinton, for that matter — is likely to fundamentally redirect the nation from the counter-terrorism track it’s been on the past 15 years, or engage Islamic terrorism in a way that doesn’t continually risk making matters worse.
The agreements that drew the borders of the modern Middle East after World War I and unsteadily held it together for almost a century appear to have been thrown on history’s ash heap. Their dissolution probably was inevitable after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, out of which the Islamic State evolved. Acknowledging that fact would be helpful. Ditto acknowledging the counterproductive roles that Turkey and Saudi Arabia play in the Middle East — Turkey in undermining the fight against the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia in promoting the spread of radical Islam.
A determined respect for perspective over fear, and a resolute trust in our values, also would help, lest we become the giant who brushes away gnats by smashing furniture and breaking windows. I close with this quote from Salman Rushdie, written after 9/11:
“The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.
“How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.”