A week ago Saturday, at about 9:30 am, a pipe bomb went off in Seaside, New Jersey, along the route of a charity race. Nobody was there because the race had been delayed (ironically enough, by a suspicious package): if things had gone as planned, the consequences would have been more severe.
That night, at around 8:00 pm, an explosive device went off in a dumpster on West 23rd Street, injuring 29. Another device, in a pressure cooker, was found by police a few blocks away.
Mayor DeBlasio was quick to note that the 23rd Street explosion had ‘no evidence at this point of a terror connection.’ After it happened, given recent events in San Bernadino and Orlando, and the guy who tried to set off an SUV bomb in Times Square a few years ago, I imagined the perpetrators of these events as people who were born in the United States, grew up here, and then turned to radical Islam.
I was close. The alleged perpetrator of both the Seaside and New York events arrived in the US as a refugee from Afghanistan as a child, became a naturalized citizen, went to high school in New Jersey, and worked as a fry cook at his father’s fried chicken place.
So what happened? Therein lies the genius of ISIS: they don’t actually have to do anything, in terms of actually committing violence, to be effective. This isn’t to say that ISIS isn’t doing anything, or that we don’t have be mindful of the possibility that they might do something, but that’s not the real problem. All ISIS has to do to be effective, and encourage others to commit violence on their behalf, is present a compelling alternative to the vapid cultural neutrality of our time.
Consider the case of a young Muslim male growing up in this country. His parents tell him that he has to keep his religion under wraps when dealing with others. Even if there isn’t overt discrimination, those who might otherwise be his friends would be weirded out. And many Christian and Jewish parents, I’m sure, tell their children the same thing.
As he grows up and sees the world around him, it doesn’t fit with his upbringing. It isn’t so much a matter whether it fits with Islam or not. Our secular culture encourages us to indulge in whatever physical pleasures come to hand, and reminds us that morality is a quaint anachronism.
And then what? Well, find some more physical pleasures.
And if you’re still unhappy? Then there must be something wrong with you. We have pills for that.
And then our young man finds out about ISIS, and it’s a revelation. There are rules; there is right and wrong; there is honor in doing the right thing. ISIS is bold, strong, compelling, and dangerous. And if you fail, you will have died with honor, with 72 virgins waiting for you.
Indeed, it’s a compelling alternative even if you aren’t a Muslim.
So what do we do about it?
The icky part is that the government can’t fix it. The best they can do is to turn the country into a police state, watching everything we do and say and read. And if they could monitor our thoughts, they’d do that too.
For my part, I don’t want to live in a police state, even if they can effectively protect me from terrorists and terrorist wannabes. Imagine the most officious, overbearing boss you can, and then imagine him in charge of your entire life, and if you disagree with him, he can kill you or throw you in prison to rot. I’d rather take my chances with terrorists.
The government can also address the threat of terrorism by going to war, i.e. ‘taking the fight to the enemy.’ We’ve been at it for 15 years now, having accomplished, well, zilch.
This isn’t to say that government doesn’t have a role in fighting terrorism at all. The government should be looking out for threats from abroad, as well as such domestic threats as can be discerned while respecting our Constitutional rights. A few years ago, people asked ‘should terrorism be dealt with as a law enforcement matter?’ with the notion that those who answered in the affirmative were really soft on terrorists and the real answer was to use the military. But having seen how that worked out, I’m not so sure.
But the real answer, the more difficult answer, is that we—all of us—need to build a society in which the nihilism of ISIS is not a compelling alternative for a young person looking to make something of his life. And the government, by itself, can’t do that.