Monday, December 7, 2015

Address to the Nation: Terrorism

         It's not going to happen, but if we could mix together a "gaffe" by John Kerry — a politician's slipping and telling an unpleasant truth — with the knowledge and intelligence of Barack Obama and the intemperance of Donald Trump, we might get a useful talk to Americans on terrorism.
            As Democratic candidate for President, John Kerry was impolitic but right in his assertion that for the foreseeable future, the best we can hope for with terrorism is to reduce it to the point where, in terms of America, it is a nuisance, even as it is deadly for some Americans.
            There's a distinction there we need to get. Terrorists threaten American interests and the lives of Americans and, more so, non-Americans in war zones; terrorists are not a threat to the American State, what we have of an American nation, nor, unless we panic, to the American Republic. One of the horrible lessons of World War II is how many people can be killed, wounded, and maimed, how much property and infrastructure and cultural products can be destroyed, without even bringing down a regime, let alone destroying a State or a people.
            So get that straight: terrorists are a variety of "existential threat" to Americans — they can kill (etc.) a fair number of us — but not to America.
            That, relatively speaking, is the good news.
            The bad news is that you will die. More or less unpleasantly, you will die; your children will die; and every human, animal, and plant you know and love (or hate or have never heard of) will die. As Hamlet's mom reminds him, "You know it's common: all that lives must die, / Passing through life to eternity," or passing on to just to being dead (1.2.73-74). You will die; unless we screw up badly, human life and civilization will carry on.
            Even if you are one of America's fairly numerous homicides, however — 13,716 in 2013 — it is highly unlikely you'll be a victim of terrorism or some other exotic crime where you'll be killed by a stranger. To repeat again a repeated statistic, "between 2001 and 2013, there were 3,030 people killed in domestic acts of terrorism" in the USA, plus 350 in that period killed abroad. "This brings the total to 3,380," as opposed to more mundane "American Deaths by Firearms on U.S. soil" during that period of 406,496, although many of those deaths were suicides — 41,149 in 2013 — which you may count as you like.
            Heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, or just some dumb-ass accident: those are the "leading causes of death" for Americans, saith the Centers for Disease Control; terrorism is nowhere near the top ten.
            So, first thing to do, fellow Americans, is to get your figurative spines stiffened and "grow a pair": increase the size of the part of the frontal lobes that does math and risk assessment, locate your gonads, and get those adrenal glands going at a good level for courage but not panic.
            Because we are threatened.
            President Obama was correct in 2014 in saying that ISIS (ISIL, Daesh) was a junior varsity team. The varsity would be a "kinder, gentler" successor group to ISIS, one that can hold territory without extreme brutality and for long enough time to prepare for the professionals. The true threat would be a territorial entity that is the origin of a mass movement with a charismatic leader, an expanding army, and, eventually, access to air and naval power.
            Think of Muhammad, Umar, and Abu Bakr (the first caliph), but with heavier weapons and a variety of fundamentalism necessarily absent when the fundamentals of a religion are in development. Speaking of initial expansion of Islam within and then out of the Arabian Peninsula, my 1937 Thompson and Johnson History of Medieval Europe notes that it is "impossible" in the early years of the Faith "to speak of Mohammedan [sic] fanaticism, except possibly in isolated instances. Mohammed himself in his conquest of Mecca displayed a fierce enough zeal; but in general no such militant intolerance as, for example, characterized the struggle of Christianity against paganism, characterized Mohammedan expansion. The fanaticism of Islam is that of much later converts, and even so Mohammedanism has normally been marked in practice by its tolerance" (164; ch. 7, "The Empire of the Arabs").
            Such tolerance is not a characteristic of ISIS, and they threaten wars of Reformation plus a Sunni vs. Shia civil war, combined with warfare against more obvious infidels.
            The serious danger is not the relative "nuisance" of terrorism nor even guerilla warfare, but full-scale war that parallels the European Wars of Religion following the Protestant Reformation in the Early Modern period, combined with the Medieval Crusades, in turn combined with the earlier expansion of Islam that marked the end of the Ancient World.
            Except that the Modern and postmodern world has a plentiful supply of nuclear weapons, including in places in reach of an ISIS successor, like Pakistan and Israel.
            The 16th- and 17th-centuryWars of Religion between Catholic and Protestant Christians killed over seven million people; if we are not careful, we in our times — with more lethal weapons and far larger populations — can make such numbers look trivial.
            And such a war would be fine with the members of ISIS with apocalyptic aspirations, and with potential opponents with similar hopes: "Onward Christian soldiers," marching into literal war, maybe joined by extremist Jews and Hindus, "depending on the breaks," all in a world awash with heavy weaponry.
            All of which is why we must "Be of good courage" in the face of terrorism and not panic. Our fears have led to enough damage already in Afghanistan and, far more so, Iraq. Getting sucked into Syria would compound the damage. We must indeed fight ISIS to prevent wars of religion that would be an existential threat not just to the United States but to the human world as we know it; but we must fight ISIS in cautious alliances that will not start the wars we wish to prevent.

            For Americans, terrorism is a deadly but unliely danger; for America, it is, in itself, a nuisance. A real clash of civilizations — fights to the death among the armed forces of States and a caliphate — would be massive slaughter.

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