A day after the horrible events in Orlando, Americans are again finding themselves in the traumatic and painful wake of a domestic terrorist attack. Yesterday the President remarked that we would all find out more regarding the killer’s motives and intentions, but based on initial reporting we already know what to expect. A radical jihadist with familial ties to the Taliban, and explicit support from ISIL? Anyone living in the United States can finish that narrative. The Boston Marathon, San Bernardino, Umpqua College – the story is becoming all too familiar and all too frequent.
“Senseless” is a word already being utilized to describe the mass murder. It certainly feels that way, and from our Western perspective we struggle to imagine why anyone would ever do such an appalling thing. However, this event wasn’t random and it certainly wasn’t incidental. What occurred was a premeditated, purposeful act of hate originated and planned by a known enemy. The United States is at war with ISIL, and as Sunday’s events agonizingly showed, they are certainly at war with us.
This is the reality which Americans must accept – while our opponent may be Syrian-based, the war we are fighting against them knows no geographical bounds. ISIL’s social media propaganda solicits support from over 48 countries, and every year they bring in far more recruits than our military air strikes terminate. Domestically, the FBI is managing over 900 active investigations into ISIL-related activity, including at least one in every American state. For ISIL, this is total war.
The front lines to this struggle are not merely towns like Fallujah or Mosul. They are familiar cities like Orlando and Los Angeles. Popular nightclubs, sporting events, public transportation, universities, holiday festivals – all of these otherwise enjoyable and peaceful venues are now potential targets for attack. And worst of all, such attacks are being carried out by an enemy most Americans would otherwise never encounter or know much about. What, the mournful residents of Orlando must be asking, did we ever do to them?
It doesn’t help that in a war against ISIL, our government’s leaders rarely frame it as such. Not only should they be accurately portraying the enemy we face and preparing us for the threat, our leaders should be doing everything they can to empower the US military to fully exterminate ISIL. Right now they are not.
The truth is that America can do more, and we should be doing more. This sentiment has been frequently articulated by Republicans and the right, even to such extremes as former presidential candidate Ted Cruz claiming he would “carpet bomb ISIS to see if the sand glows.” Presumptive nominee Donald Trump has said much of the same, advocating both a freeze on immigration as well as the targeting of Syrian civilians to punish terrorists. But these aren’t strategies as much as they are tactics. Simply killing more ISIL members won’t defeat their ideology or stop radicalization, and barring immigration while spreading the violence to civilians will only serve to radicalize more of the 1.6 billion Muslims living in the world.
To actually root out ISIL, and to prevent events like Orlando from recurring, the United States needs a better and more comprehensive strategy. We need a thorough, nuanced, and expansive plan of action which will undermine the terrorist group’s support from the ground up. Such a strategy must incorporate an accurate understanding of existing players in the Middle East, recognition of the appeal that ISIL uses to solicit and maintain its widespread support, and bold initiatives which incorporate successful ventures from the past with new ideas for the future. Nothing less will eliminate the fierce and resilient enemy we face at home and abroad.
We owe our prayers, thoughts, and sympathy to the victims of Orlando and their families. Along with this, we owe them our very best efforts at enacting justice for what occurred. In the upcoming posts I will offer an outline of a military strategy which can accomplish precisely that.
What is it in a man that causes him to do the unthinkable? Why would a student, afforded higher education and the opportunity to advance in life, instead choose to study acts of terrorism and violence? Why would a young man arm himself with firearm after firearm, stocking himself with enough ammunition for a military operation only to turn it against the innocent and defenseless? Exactly what temptation does a person fall into that leads him to force his peers against a wall and systematically execute each one who admits to a Christian faith? Why Christopher Harper-Mercer, why Umpqua Community College, and why now?
Horror, shock, and grief after the Umpqua shooting are reactions not limited to a particular side of the American political spectrum. We all feel mixed emotions of disbelief, sadness, and anger that such a terrible event could occur on a college campus. Such an environment is normally a place where education is prized, disagreements are civil, and mass murder is unthinkable – a place that should be safe. Tragedies such as what happened last Thursday have the potential to unite America in a shared experience of loss, and to bring together people from all corners of the country in mourning for those who were victims on that dreadful day.
But this shared experience does not change the fact that, amidst the grief surrounding such a tragedy, serious questions must be answered. The American people, who now seemingly accept a risk every time they venture onto an institution of higher learning, deserve to know why this man did what he did and what can be done to prevent further acts of violence. We need answers -- thoughtful and insightful answers -- which can provide a level of explanation that will help us make sense of this tragedy. It is only from this place of understanding that we can painfully but justly move to closure, as we empower ourselves to take the right and proper preventive action to keep the Umpqua shooting from happening again.
No such answers have yet come from President Obama and his administration. The day of the event the President provided a public statement in which a mere two sentences were devoted to the identity of Christopher Harper-Mercer. Conceding that little was yet known about him or his motives, Obama argued that Harper-Mercer should simply be grouped with other terrorist shooters who have “sickness in their minds.” The President moved on from here quickly, having instead much to say about the state of our country at large. In so doing Obama evidenced just how unimportant Harper-Mercer’s motives would be, once uncovered, to his narrative of the event.
And this is main problem with President Obama’s approach, just as it is with the arguments of the anti-gun lobby. It isn’t simply that the effectiveness of gun control is in doubt (as many conservatives are currently arguing), but rather that the anti-gun lobby has already accepted a narrative to explain school shootings in general. With or without investigation, the events that unfolded at Umpqua College fall into place in this narrative and become added fuel to an already blazing fire. Whether or not Christopher Harper-Mercer was a neo-fascist, a white supremacist, a radical Islamist, or none of the above matters little when the preconditioned narrative already accepts the instrument rather than the perpetrator as the focus of judgment.
Or, in the case of Obama’s narrative, it can be said that Christopher Harper-Mercer’s life and motives do not matter because the blame doesn’t fall squarely on him. Instead, as the President argued, it is the American people who are to blame for fostering an environment in which such atrocities can occur. The reason we have done this, he explains, is because we as a people are “numb” to mass tragedy. Calling our sympathetic thoughts and prayers “not enough,” President Obama argued that our lack of sympathy is evidenced in that the “cause of continuing death for innocent people” is no longer a “relevant factor” in our political decisions. As a result of such idle numbness, we as Americans give terrorists the opportunity to mass murder civilians. Ultimately, according to our President, we as the American electorate should accept that it is our fault that this tragedy occurred, for it is we who continue to make a “political choice” to “allow this to happen every few months” in our country.
A far wiser president than he once stated that “we must reject the idea that every time a law is broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker” and that “it is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” To know exactly what we should do about the shooting at Umpqua College, we should know exactly what happened and why. And before any larger conversation on the nature of gun control versus the right to bear arms can recommence, we should first reflect on the assumptions we bring to the table. For it may well be that it is the narratives we cling to, rather than our sympathetic thoughts and prayers, which aren’t enough.