WASHINGTON – Here we go, more home-grown terrorism in America, most likely Islam-inspired terrorism. This time it happened in San Bernardino, in Southern California. A young couple of South Asian origin decided that they needed to kill people at a holiday party for local public services employees.
And so they did. They went there, heavily armed. And they started firing into the defenseless crowd, killing 14, and injuring 17. A while later they were found, and they were killed in a massive shoot out with police.
After all this, we have the usual phenomenon of over the top, 24 hour media coverage, with the usual tail of dozens of experts interviewed, so that they can opine on motives, international connections, methods, necessary counter measures, and more. Officiating over this media bazaar, stern looking news anchors ask really silly questions such as: “How are we going to prevent this from happening again?”
This obsessive coverage at least indirectly conveys the impression that in America and throughout the world we have massive terrorist attacks everywhere, every day. But it is not so. Yes, we had the bomb on the Russian plane in Egypt, then, Paris, and Mali, and now San Bernardino. Disturbing developments. But this is hardly a wave.
ISIL and its supporters are a menace. But deaths or serious injuries due to traffic accidents are a much worse menace. It is a fact that millions of Americans will die prematurely because of the consequences of type 2 diabetes, a preventable chronic disease that most people affected by it do not take seriously.
Very, very few will be victims of terror violence. And yet the media hysteria creates the unhealthy perception that we are now a nation under siege.
No way to completely stop religion inspired violence
Unless they are totally dense, these savvy media people must know that a few terror attacks, however tragic, are not the equivalent of a global conflict.
Besides, they should also know that there is no clean “solution” for occasional acts of violence perpetrated by psychopaths inspired by a weird interpretation of Islam.
The media people should know that it is impossible to stop all small groups of radicalized individuals, scattered around a vast country, from scheming, plotting and occasionally executing acts of terror. And yet the relentless coverage of the events leads the general public to believe that terrorism is an everyday occurrence and that, if we only had the right leaders, we would find a way to stop it.
As we have just seen in San Bernardino, it does not take an organized expeditionary force to cause a slaughter. You need just a couple of motivated people armed with semi-automatic weapons. Sadly, plotting and executing similar acts of terror is really easy. As long as there are people willing to embrace this ideology that advocates a crazy version of jihad, there will be more acts of terror.
Mitigate the threat
Yes, we can mitigate the threat. Law enforcement can do a better job. Intelligence services can track more bad guys. More alert citizens can raise alarms when they see something suspicious.
And, as I have argued elsewhere, destroying the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq would affect the morale of militants located in many countries.
But there is no “final remedy” for a threat that stems from the power of an alluring ideology of death and redemption that resonates with some (not millions, not thousands) confused people looking for meaning in their lives.
The “cause” of terror
Indeed, we know that the “source” of this terror threat rests in the twisted minds of some deranged individuals who have been convinced by internet-delivered slick propaganda that it is their duty to kill innocent people in order to further a plan of destruction and redemption founded on religious beliefs.
Talking over and over on TV about what may have motivated so and so to embrace radical Islam provides no remedy whatsoever. It does not create new tools that may be used to convince others to abandon similar plans. It only creates and fuels unjustified fears.
The only antidote to “radicalization” is for people to choose humane ideas instead of crazy ones. But nobody knows how to create a method that will teach misguided people how to abandon dreams of jihad and rejoin civilized discourse.
This is serious
Let me be clear, I am not trying to say that these mass killings inspired by crazy political-religious beliefs are not important. They are.
But broadcasting, in an obsessive way, all the details of a violent deed plotted and executed by psychopaths who justified it with some pseudo-religious motive does not help anybody.
If anything, it conjures up scenarios of hundreds, possibly thousands of sinister plots unfolding, every day. And this is clearly an exaggeration.
So, what we should we do about terrorism? First of all, stop this hysterical coverage! Let’s leave this matter to the professionals. If anybody can help, even a bit, it is going to be intelligence people, the FBI counter terrorism specialists, Homeland Security, and various police forces around America.
“Fix this, now”
But no. This is portrayed as a national emergency. TV news anchors blabbering about this “Islamic Terror Threat” 24/7 seem intent on creating a state of perpetual national alert. “Oh, My God…More terrorism. Again? And what are we going to do about this? What is President Obama doing? What are the presidential candidates saying?”
This “Give us a solution, now, otherwise soon enough we shall all be dead” approach creates the stupid perception that there is an imminent threat affecting the entire country, and that we need a smart person who can figure out a good way to “fix” this menace –once and for all.
No magic remedy
As if a leader with superior skills could dig into his tool kit and come up with the appropriate gadget that would just do it. The fact is that there is no such ready-made solution.
Consider the obvious. We do not live in a police state. We cannot have a permanent state of emergency in which the police can go anywhere, without probable cause and without any warrants, and round up everybody who may be a suspect, subjecting them to “harsh interrogations” (read torture) in order to extract information about plots and accomplices. This is America, not North Korea.
On top of that, we know that there are just too many, totally unprotected soft targets. This terrorist couple hit defenseless people assembled for a holiday party in San Bernardino.
Now, there are probably tens of thousands of such events every year before the Holidays in America. Are we going to dispatch squads of policemen to guard all of them, just in case?
And then there are sports events, concerts, crowded movie theaters, shopping malls, schools, universities, and museums. Same situation. Massive police protection everywhere? We just do not have the resources to police everything, everywhere.
This being the case, what do we do? Do we close “everything” down, as a security precaution? No, we shall not do that because this would be the end of commerce and of the national economy.
Well, if this is so, then we have to learn how to live with the possibility of more terror attacks, keeping in mind that, based on the existing record, there have been very few.
The plague of our time
Sadly, religiously motivated terrorism is a disease that will be with us for a while. Of course, we have to fight it. But we should also recognize that it is difficult to do so. There are more than 300 million citizens in America, not to mention throngs of visitors arriving every day, tens of thousands of foreign students and foreign workers, and millions of illegal immigrants who reside here. Checking on everybody in order to make sure that we catch all the bad guys before they act is an impossibility.
Low cost operations
Remember, just a couple of motivated terrorists can cause death and major disruptions, at least in the locality where the event occurs. As the San Bernardino slaughter proves, only two people with a couple of assault rifles caused a disaster. Besides, this type of “do-it-yourself”, small scale terrorism is very cheap.
This whole operation probably cost just a few thousand dollars to buy rifles, ammunition, bomb making material, and for renting an SUV. In other words, putting together another plot, just like this one, is really easy!
Difficult to detect
On any given day, law enforcement agencies probably do a decent job at tracking many suspects, and occasionally apprehending a few. But some will slip through.
It is just inevitable. And sometimes bad guys go on plotting undetected because ordinary citizens do not want to get involved. Indeed, most tragically, it would appear that some neighbors of the terrorist couple in San Bernardino noticed strange activities around their house. But they did not report anything to the authorities, for fear of being portrayed as anti-foreigners bigots.
What do we do?
So, what do we do? Except for reporting suspicious activities when they see any, there is really nothing that ordinary people can do. This is a job for the professionals.
Intelligence services and law enforcement agencies may be able to get better at what they already do. But they cannot perform miracles. The tragedy of acts of terror inspired by crazy interpretations of Islam is that the bizarre ideas that inspire them can be embraced potentially by thousands and thousands of people, who may be located almost anywhere.
Easy to become a terrorist
And, as I said before, it is easy to become an improvised would-be terrorist. You do not need advanced degrees, or heavy training.
Sure, some skills are necessary.
But it is not that difficult to learn how to pull the trigger into an unarmed crowd, this way causing mass casualties. And it does not take that much money either. In this gun saturated society, if you have no prior criminal record, buying a gun or an assault rifle is just as complicated as ordering a coffee maker through Amazon.
That said, please keep in mind that we have no evidence of waves upon waves of terror attacks about to hit America. Yes, there have been some. And probably some more will take place. But this is a problem, and not an existential threat. I wish our media would be able to explain the difference.
Discussing all the details serves no purpose
Is this analysis an invitation to fatalism? Not really. This is an invitation to realism. We have a problem; but it is not a crisis.
By obsessively digging into the details of the lives of psychopaths dressed up as religious fighters we accomplish nothing constructive. Doing so just creates an unhealthy climate of fear.
So, here is my simple advice. Let’s report the news, but let’s not talk about this too much. And let’s leave terrorism to the professionals.
Looking into the future, let’s hope that the ideological malady that inspires political violence will soon go away. If history is any guide, crazy ideas may linger for a while; but they do not last for ever.