The battle against terrorism has become America’s forever war. The original congressional authorization for the war—the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) of September 2001—has now been bent and enlarged to embrace enemies that it did not mention or envisage when it was written.
The commander in chief has made no secret of his fear that the war he is obliged to wage against terrorism has been corroding the American soul. In a speech at the National Defense University in 2013, he said:
We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root. And in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war through drones or special forces or troop deployments will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways.
He wants to bring the war to an end, but as his term ebbs away, he is like Laocoön struggling to escape the serpents’ coils.
With San Bernardino and Orlando, Paris, Brussels, and now Nice, the threat that once seemed to come from without now also comes from within. It has felt like a betrayal to discover that some of the attackers were not foreigners, but citizens.
Thinking about the citizen terrorist is not easy. The beginning of wisdom may be to refuse the ready-made explanations that have flooded the void left behind by tragedy. We don’t understand how or why particular individuals “self-radicalize” while others do not. We do not know why they choose the targets they do. We have no good reason to believe that multicultural integration in general, or the integration of Muslim minorities in particular, has failed simply because it so obviously fails in these singular and tragic instances. The closer you look at these cases, the less obvious it becomes how to stop the carnage, though it would help to make it considerably more difficult for individuals who end up on FBI watch lists to purchase assault weapons.
Donald Trump has no patience with the perplexing questions posed by Orlando and San Bernardino. He has his own answers. He believes the “home-grown terrorist” calls into question mass immigration from foreign countries in general and Muslim countries in particular. He wants to call an end to any welcome America may give to refugees, starting with the desperate people escaping Syria. Right-wing politicians across Europe want to do the same. Closing borders, building walls, sending them all back “home”—these proposals appeal to voters frightened, for other reasons as well, by open borders and global job competition.
What’s new about the politics of terrorism today is the malign confluence of two distinct and separate challenges: mass migration and refugee flight, and the self-radicalizing terrorist. Right-wing politicians—such as Nigel Farage in the UK, Geert Wilders in Holland,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.