What keeps America from protecting itself against radical Islam?
President Barack Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is adapted from a speech the author delivered this week at the Westminster Institute in McLean, Va. The topic: “Defenseless in the Face of Our Enemies: What Keeps America from Protecting Itself from Radical Islam.”
Two weekends ago in Orlando, Fla., in the wee hours of the morning, a gunman opened fire in a gay nightclub teeming with revelers. After killing and wounding scores of people, he took hostages in a restroom. He began calling police and media outlets, began crafting social-media posts, all for the point of announcing what was already clear to the nightclub denizens who’d heard him screaming, “Allahu Akbar!” — Allah is greater! — as he fired shot after shot: Omar Mateen was a stealth Muslim militant.
He was an adherent of radical Islam who committed his atrocity in furtherance of its ongoing jihad against America and the West. He took time in the midst of the carnage to make bayat — a pledge of allegiance — to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State terror network and its proclaimed caliphate.
By the time police barged in three hours later and killed Mateen in a firefight, he had murdered 49 people and wounded another 53, many quite seriously.
It should have been possible to see Omar Mateen coming. He was a first-generation American citizen, born in this country to immigrant parents from Afghanistan and raised in a troubled household — one in which the father is a visible and ardent supporter of the Taliban, the fundamentalist jihadist group that ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, harbored al-Qaeda as it plotted and executed the 9/11 attacks, and to this day wages war against American troops as it fights to retake the country.
Mateen, who was 29 when he committed his mass-murder attack, was repeatedly suspended for fighting throughout his childhood school years. Academically, he had great difficulty — despite being nominally American from birth, he was mired for years in English programs for students who speak other languages in the home. His rantings during the attack indicated that he considered Afghanistan to be his home, and that he identified, first and foremost, as a Muslim: a member of the worldwide ummah — not a citizen of the United States, the nation he volunteered to levy war against, just as the Islamic State (or ISIS) exhorts its acolytes to do.
Mateen was investigated not once but twice by the FBI in the three years before he turned the Pulse nightclub into an abattoir. The first time because, while working as a security guard, he claimed to have ties to both al-Qaeda and Hezbollah — two infamous jihadist organizations that have killed more Americans than any others. Mateen also claimed mutual acquaintances with the Tsarnaev brothers, who bombed the Boston Marathon. He spoke of longing for a martyr’s death — meaning: He wanted to be killed while waging jihad against Allah’s enemies, the Americans.
The FBI further learned that within a two-year period starting in 2011, Mateen had made two pilgrimages to Islamic sites in Saudi Arabia. In Islamic terms, both pilgrimages were considered lesser ones — umrah, which is not required and can be done any time of year, as opposed to hajj, the visit to Mecca, which all physically and financially capable Muslims are required to make at least once in a lifetime, during the last month of Islam’s annual lunar calendar.
An investigator open to drawing commonsense conclusions about Mateen’s potential attachment to Islamic extremism (perhaps the more precise term is sharia supremacism) would be apt to note that Mateen’s trips were voluntary immersions into fundamentalism in an Islamic society in which sharia is rigorously enforced and jihadism is known to thrive. Many Muslims never make umrah at all; to make it twice in a short space of time is highly unusual.
But, as we shall see, the FBI — through little fault of its own — is encouraged to shun commonsense conclusions about Islamic ideological attachments. The investigation was closed because agents concluded Mateen was not a threat: He was simply making outlandish, belligerent claims for the purpose of spooking his co-workers. (To be fair to investigators, that theory was consistent with Mateen’s provocative and anti-social behavior throughout his childhood.)
The second investigation of Mateen was indirect. The actual focus of the FBI’s probe was Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who is believed to be the first American Muslim to conduct a suicide bombing as part of the Islamic State’s jihad in Syria. It turns out that Abusalha attended the same Orlando-area mosque frequented by Mateen.
This fact is worth pausing over for a moment. The Washington Post’s report is telling. It informs us that Mateen and Abusalha “prayed at the same Fort Pierce, Fla., mosque” (emphasis added). This description of what the two men must have been doing in the mosque is consistent with a quarter-century of government, media, academic, and other opinion-elite sculpting of public perception: Islam, we are to believe, is a religion just like any other; a mosque, therefore, must be a house of worship like any church, temple, or synagogue in the West — nothing more than a sanctuary where believers gather for communal prayer.
Of course, to the student of fundamentalist Islam and its sharia-supremacist teachings, this is sheer nonsense.
There is a reason why much of the jihadist violence in the Middle East and its environs occurs on Fridays — Juma, the Muslim Sabbath, on which believers pour out of mosques after being treated to the imam’s political diatribes and incitements to jihad against Western imperialism.
While there are various ways of interpreting Islam, many of them benign and reformist, sharia supremacism is not so much a religion as a radical political ideology with a religious veneer. It does not recognize a division between mosque and state, or between spiritual and political or civic spheres of life. In this aggressive, fundamentalist construction of Islam, the mosque is not a mere “house of worship” where believers gather strictly “to pray.” Far from it. The mosque is the political and ideological center of what, in the West, is an anti-assimilationist movement bent on conquest, not prayerful pluralism.
Hassan al-Bannah, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s most influential, most sophisticated sharia-supremacist movement, taught a farsighted form of ground-up revolution. It would plant its flag and grow outward in enclaves, small towns, and — eventually — big cities, districts, counties, states, provinces, and countries across the globe.
And where would it plant its flag in every place it sought conquest? Bannah instructed that the mosque and its companion Islamic community center would be “the axis of the movement” wherever the movement took root.
Nor does an American investigator need to be steeped in Muslim Brotherhood doctrine to grasp this — however much those of us with eyes to see might wish every American counterterrorism agent were acquainted with Brotherhood doctrine.
In the quarter-century since I prosecuted the jihadist cell that bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 and had plotted — unsuccessfully — to conduct simultaneous strikes against iconic New York City landmarks, the Justice Department has indicted and tried numerous terrorism cases. In these prosecutions, the hub is invariably the mosque. To take my case back in the mid-nineties as a typical example, we proved that the mosque was used for jihadist radicalization, recruitment, fundraising, training, and plotting, in addition to serving as a safe space for the storage and transfer of firearms.
Why were jihadists so brazen in this regard? Because while our government consciously avoids acknowledging the straightforward tenets of sharia supremacism, Muslim militants go to school on the West. They know that, heedless of what courtroom proof shows and what common sense says, our opinion elites stubbornly cling to the depiction of Islam as a monolithic “religion of peace,” in which the mosque is merely and unvaryingly a place of prayer.
In this second investigation in which the FBI crossed paths with Mateen, it concluded that he and Abusalha, the suicide jihadist, were passing acquaintances at best; that their connection to the same “house of worship” was mere happenstance.
Still, in the course of the investigation, the Bureau stacked new, troubling facts atop the Mateen intelligence haul that had already been compiled. A witness told investigators that Mateen had been a devotee of videos featuring the late al-Qaeda firebrand Anwar al-Awlaki — a jihadist who, before finally being killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, mysteriously slipped through the FBI’s net several times over the years, beginning with his apparently conspiratorial meetings with some of the 9/11 suicide hijackers.
Moreover, it turned out that Mateen had enrolled in an online Islamic “seminary” run in Orlando by Marcus Robertson, a Muslim militant who had been known to the FBI since the early 1990s, when he served as a sometime bodyguard of the Blind Sheikh — the leader of the jihadist cell in my aforementioned terrorism prosecution.
Back then, Robertson was the leader of a violent gang that robbed banks and post offices in order to underwrite the jihad. He was also described by one jihadist as a reliable source for explosives, detonators, and high-powered weapons. Robertson, however, served only a brief stint in prison, apparently because he agreed to become a covert agent for American intelligence agencies, a dubious arrangement that came to an abrupt halt in 2007, when Robertson physically attacked his CIA handler in North Africa and was ousted from the informant program.
Robertson resurfaced in Florida a year later — naturally, as an imam in yet another “prayer” center, the al-Ihsaan mosque, formerly known as the Islamic Center of Orlando. Simultaneously, he reinvented himself as a sharia scholar, running the Fundamental Islamic Knowledge Seminary (later redubbed the Timbuktu Seminary). That was the seminary in which Mateen enrolled.
For now, the extent of the Robertson–Mateen connection is unknown — it is possible that Mateen merely enrolled in the online course and did not deal with Robertson personally. It is known, however, that Robertson used the seminary at least once for the purpose of jihadist recruitment. He and a co-defendant, Jonathan Paul Jimenez, were convicted in a criminal case involving tax fraud, the purpose of which was to raise money to finance Jimenez’s paramilitary training in Africa.
In connection with that case, which also involved a firearms offense, Robertson was incarcerated for nearly four years and proved alarmingly adept at converting inmates to his radical interpretation of Islam. Yet because the Justice Department had charged Robertson only with a tax offense, not a terrorism offense, a federal judge released him in mid-2015 on a sentence of time served. According to the court, the FBI’s evidence that Robertson had terrorist ties was too flimsy to warrant the ten-year sentence urged by prosecutors.
Was Mateen inspired by Robertson, just as he was clearly inspired by ISIS? Just as there is reason to believe he may have been inspired by Abusalha? Do his roots in radical Islam run deeper, a progression from his father’s attachment to Taliban fundamentalism, an ideology tracing back a millennium and of which the brutalization of homosexuals is a core element, firmly based in scripture and deeply rooted in sharia?
Only further investigation will tell us for sure.
Or will it?
Emerging reports indicate that the FBI may have missed some behavioral clues, such as a reported attempt to purchase body armor — a report that may have been sketchy and hard to link to Mateen. I can assure you, though, based on nearly 20 years as a prosecutor, that such clues are missed in nearly every case. They tend to look a lot clearer in 20–20 hindsight than they were in real time.
Jihadist atrocities are more common homeland occurrences now, in the eighth year of Obama, than they have ever been — more common even than in the pre-9/11 Clinton years, when terrorists bombed the World Trade Center and plotted against other targets but usually struck American facilities overseas (our Air Force dormitory in Saudi Arabia, our embassies in East Africa, our naval destroyer in Yemen).
And while government officials and media analysts spout on about the phenomenon of “lone wolf” attacks by “homegrown” terrorists, it is more myth than fact. Repeatedly, we find out that the wolves in question were not “lone” and hidden, but known and in plain sight. And though they may strike at home, the ideology that fuels them is foreign and hostile to the West.
All that said, we should stipulate that the FBI is overwhelmed. There is a natural tendency, after an atrocity occurs, to focus myopically on the lead-up to the attack — as if any relevant investigation must have been the only investigation in the world. But that is a gross distortion of reality.
Of the nearly 36,000 people who work for the FBI, fewer than 14,000 are investigative agents. National security is a crucial part of the Bureau’s portfolio, but the FBI is statutorily the lead investigative agency in virtually every category of criminal offense in federal law. At most, there are a couple thousand agents assigned full-time to counterterrorism. Those numbers are multiplied somewhat by joint federal-state efforts — the Joint Terrorism Task Forces in several metropolitan areas across the nation. Even so, because the Bureau is an intelligence agency as well as a law-enforcement agency, there are over a thousand terrorism investigations ongoing at any one time. The FBI director indicates that there is activity that must be monitored in all 50 states. Unless there are flashing neon signs of imminent attack, the small number of investigators can only spend so much time on any one suspect.
Of course, that time can be maximized, or wasted, depending on whether investigators know what they’re looking for . . . and whether they are permitted to look for it.
Clearly, the FBI spent a lot of time on Mateen. It sent confidential informants to interact with him, conducted physical surveillance, covertly monitored some of his phone calls, and interviewed him face-to-face three separate times. It concluded that his bark was bad, but his bite was non-existent. Honoring guidelines imposed on terrorism investigations, the FBI closed its case. That is, in addition to concluding that no charges should be filed, the Bureau further decided that additional monitoring of Mateen was not warranted.
In retrospect, this seems reckless. But the FBI is not incompetent, far from it. The agency knew Mateen was worth a heavy investigative investment. The problem is that the FBI answers to the Washington political class. The bipartisan Beltway has long ruled that advocacy of radical Islam is protected by the Constitution. It has long instructed its investigators, preposterously, that seditious beliefs and agitation are immune, not just from prosecution, but even from mere inquiry.
What passes for Obama’s national-security strategy, known as “Countering Violent Extremism,” exacerbates this problem. CVE delusionally forbids the conclusion that radical Islamic ideology has any causative effect on terrorist plotting. The FBI is in the impossible position of trying to conduct investigations that follow the facts wherever they lead, while fearing that such investigations — by illuminating the logical progression from Islamic scripture to sharia supremacism to jihadist terror — will enrage its political masters.
Understand: Nothing in the Constitution mandates this suicidal betrayal of national security. It flows from Washington’s lunatic concoction of an imaginary Islam — a belief system the sole tenets of which are peace andanti-terrorism. President Obama and the counsel he keeps (many of whom are connected to insidious Islamist organizations tied to the Muslim Brotherhood) insist this “anti-terrorist” “Religion of Peace” is the onlyviable interpretation of Islam. We are not just to believe, we are pressured to endorse, the fantasy that sharia supremacism is a “false Islam.” Its palpable mainstream status in the Middle East and elsewhere is not to be spoken of.
The FBI is bound by guidelines promulgated by the Justice Department, most of which have been in place since the administration of President George W. Bush. They impose a caveat on every investigation:
These Guidelines do not authorize investigating or collecting or maintaining information on United States persons solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment or the lawful exercise of other rights secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States.
On its face, this admonition should not be problematic. It instructs that agents may not investigate for the sole purpose of monitoring activities protected by federal law. Consequently, if agents have other legitimate purposes for investigating — such as preventing terrorist attacks or probing terrorism conspiracies — the Justice Department guidance is no bar to conducting an investigation in which a mosque or a protest rally may foreseeably come under scrutiny.
Political dissent and the exercise of religion are protected by the First Amendment. But this is a protection against being prosecuted merely for one’s words or religious observance. It is not a shield against investigation for criminal activities that are motivated by religious or political belief.
Not only may one be investigated and prosecuted for criminal offenses that are motivated by one’s beliefs or speech; it has long been the law that evidence of one’s beliefs and speech, which is often highly relevant to proving criminal intent, may be admitted in a prosecution for such offenses.
Simply stated, if you are a Muslim who believes sharia law must be imposed on society, and you tell people that Allah commands the commission of violent jihad to impose sharia, that belief and statement are admissible evidence if you are charged with bombing or terrorism conspiracy crimes. You are not being prosecuted for what you believe or what you said; you are being prosecuted for the crimes. The beliefs and statements are evidence of your state of mind — just as they are in all kinds of criminal cases beyond terrorism.
That being the case, there is nothing inherently wrong with, much less constitutionally offensive about, the concept that radical religious or political beliefs should trigger investigations. That is especially the case if those beliefs are conveyed by aggressive language, or by association with other radicals or mosques known to endorse jihadism.
Here’s an important principle we must get right: It cannot be that evidence an investigator may use to prove guilt of terrorism offenses is somehow insulated from an investigator’s suspicions about potential terrorism offenses. The goal of counterterrorism is supposed to be the prevention of jihadist attacks, not the hope that there may be a living terrorist or two still around to be indicted and tried only after Americans have been murdered.
In law enforcement, however, what matters most is not what the law allows investigators to do. It is what the investigators’ superiors allow them to do.
That brings us to “Countering Violent Extremism.” In essence, CVE holds that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, or even with Islamist ideology that reviles the United States. President Obama has conclusively proclaimed: “Muslim American communities have categorically condemned terrorism” — end of discussion . . . as if that were an incontestable proposition or one that told the whole story.
Thus, the administration narrative continues, the real threat to our security is not Muslim terrorist plots against us but our provocation of Muslims. By the Obama administration’s lights, our national-defense measures following the 9/11 attacks have conveyed the misimpression that America is at war with Islam.
Remember, we’re in Fantasy Land, so we’re not supposed to pause at this point to ask: What, then, prompted the 9/11 attacks in the first place? What prompted the increasingly audacious series of attacks from the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center to the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole — all during those sensitive, Islamophilic Clinton years when, we’re to believe, jihadists didn’t think America was “at war with Islam.”
Instead of asking such impertinent questions, we are simply to accept the president’s say-so that the key to our security is to “partner” with the leadership in Muslim communities — much of which just happens to be tied to or heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a major 2007–08 prosecution (the Holy Land Foundation case), the Justice Department proved that the Brotherhood financed the Hamas terrorist organization to the tune of millions of dollars. That same Muslim Brotherhood is the main subject of my 2010 book, The Grand Jihad. The title is lifted from an internal Brotherhood memo seized by the FBI and presented at the Holy Land trial — a memo in which Brotherhood honchos stationed in the United States explained that their mission here is a “grand jihad” to “eliminate and destroy Western Civilization from within” — by “sabotage.”
Under CVE, we are to let our Islamist “partners” train the police, and let them be our eyes and ears in Muslim communities. Because we all share the same interests, you see, we should rest assured that these Islamist leaders will alert us if there is any cause for concern.
Makes perfect sense, right?
If it is possible, the practice of CVE is even more of a national-security disaster than the theory. This is probably best documented by my friend Stephen Coughlin in a recent and essential book: Catastrophic Failure: Blindfolding America in the Face of Jihad.
Apart from being an exceptional lawyer, Steve is a trained military intelligence officer who has studied our enemies’ threat doctrine, Islamic supremacism. Again, to be precise, it may be best to call it “sharia supremacism” because it reflects the classic sharia-based Islam that is mainstream in the Middle East. Catastrophic Failure is about how the United States government has systematically stifled the study of this doctrine since before 9/11. CVE is the paragon illustration of how the Obama administration has exacerbated this catastrophic failure — a failure that I have branded “willful blindness” since first encountering it as a prosecutor two decades ago.
As Coughlin demonstrates, CVE is no secret. For example, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties — which is every bit as radical as the infamous Civil Rights Division in the Obama Justice Department — has worked with the National Counterterrorism Center to develop government-agency training programs that “bring together best [CVE] practices.”
One product of this effort is a handy two-page instruction document of CVE “Do’s and Don’ts.” The “Don’ts” tell agents to avoid, among other things, “ventur[ing] too deep into the weeds of religious doctrine and history” or examining the “role of Islam in majority Muslim nations.” The guidance further admonishes:
Don’t use training that equates radical thought, religious expression, freedom to protest, or other constitutionally protected activity, with criminal activity. One can have radical thoughts/ideas, including disliking the U.S. government, without being violent; for example, trainers who equate the desire for Sharia law with criminal activity violate basic tenets of the First Amendment.
As we’ve already observed, this interpretation of the First Amendment is patent rubbish. Again, there is no free-speech protection against having one’s words examined for intelligence or investigative purposes. Free-expression principles protect Americans against laws that subject speech to penalty or prosecution — a protection, by the way, that the Obama administration seeks to deny to speech unflattering to Islam, under a U.N. resolution it jointly sponsored with several Islamic nations.
In sum, Obama’s CVE strategy expressly instructs our investigators to consider only violent or criminal conduct. They are told to ignore radical ideology, particularly if it has the patina of “religious expression.” They are directed to turn a deaf ear to anti-Americanism and the desire to impose sharia, which just happens to be the principal objective of all violent jihadists, and of the Obama administration’s oft-time consultants, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Our agents, furthermore, are cautioned to avoid doing anything that smacks of subjecting particular groups to heightened scrutiny. After all, that might imply that terrorism committed by Muslims has some connection to Islam — specifically, to the undeniable, unambiguous commands to violent jihad found in Muslim scripture.
Obviously, this CVE guidance is exactly what our investigators follow when they consciously avoid scrutinizing jihadist social-media postings by visa applicants from Muslim-majority countries — such as Tashfeen Malik. She was the Pakistani immigrant who joined her jihadist husband, Syed Farook, in carrying out last December’s mass-murder attack in San Bernardino (in which 14 people were killed and dozens wounded).
There is nothing secret about CVE. It is right there in black and white. Willful blindness, furthermore, is a guiding principle of Obama’s governance. It is the same rationale used to justify purging instruction about the Islamic doctrinal roots of violent jihadism from materials used to train our law-enforcement, military, and intelligence agents.
Finally, the mulish determination to hamstring our investigators is manifest in federal immigration policy, which actually promotes the infiltration of alien radicals into our country.
As a matter of law, it remains true that the first obligation of the federal government is national security, particularly protecting the lives of Americans and the homeland. It is also true that aliens outside the United States do not have a right to enter the United States, nor do they enjoy Bill of Rights protections under the Constitution.
It should come as no surprise then, that there is considerable legal and historical precedent for excluding from our country aliens who have exhibited an affinity for foreign enemies of the United States, hostility to the Constitution, and hostility to the government of the United States.
Moreover, it has historically been the goal of our immigration law and policies to promote assimilation and fidelity to American constitutional principles on the part of newly admitted aliens. To this day, aliens about to be naturalized as U.S. citizens are required to take an oath to defend the Constitution and renounce allegiance to any foreign sovereign.
It also remains true that aliens outside the United States do not have constitutional rights. Their legitimate expectations of due process are quite low. The Supreme Court ruled in 1950 that they get only whatever due process Congress chooses to give them. And under a long-established legal doctrine (“consular non-reviewability”), courts are theoretically barred from second-guessing the rejection of visa applications by State Department consular officers.
Nevertheless, these foundational principles were eroded in the latter half of the 20th century by the political Left. As James R. Edwards recounts in an essential 2005 report for the Center for Immigration Studies (“Keeping Extremists Out: The History of Ideological Exclusion and the Need for Its Revival”), progressives argued that historical restrictions against immigration by alien anarchists and (especially) Communists had been based on nativist fears and an exaggerated estimation of the threat that our government would be violently overthrown — an estimation that, to the contrary, was bolstered by extensive proof of Communist infiltration that emerged after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The political Left championed new international arrangements, such as the 1975 Helsinki Accords, that aimed to facilitate international travel and began a gradual rejection of immigration restrictions based on radical political ideology. Simultaneously, the Warren Court’s expansion of First Amendment protection for anti-American radicalism served to erode immigration restrictions that had sought to exclude aliens ideologically hostile to our society and system of governance.
The Court extended First Amendment protection to the abstract discussion, teaching, and advocacy of the overthrow of our government (tenuously distinguishing it from conspiratorial action to achieve that goal). Similarly, the justices protected the “mere advocacy” of illegal acts (tenuously distinguishing such “advocacy” from actionable incitement to violent crime).
While federal courts did not expressly and directly recognize constitutional rights for aliens, they used a loopy theory to derive such rights. They reasoned — if you can call it that — that the First Amendment rights of Americans to free political speech and assembly were somehow violated by the exclusion of alien radicals from our midst. The exclusion, we were to believe, deprived American citizens of the “right” to hear what these radicals had to say — as if their physical presence were necessary for this purpose.
The overarching theme was that immigration restrictions based on an alien’s radical, anti-American ideology were to be discouraged. Restrictions, instead, were to be limited to situations in which there was evidence of subversive or terrorist action.
There were still restrictions in federal statutory law that enabled the government to exclude aliens who were members of subversive organizations, or who had advocated seditious acts against the United States. But leading congressional Democrats warmed to the Supreme Court’s suggestion that radical ideology is basically harmless and has no causative connection to violent action. Led by Senator George McGovern (D., S.D.), lawmakers in 1977 pushed through legislation that waived these provisions in almost all cases.
Later, in 1988, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.) and Representative Barney Frank (D., Mass.) succeeded in enacting an amendment that effectively granted First Amendment protections to non-immigrant aliens. Finally, the 1990 Immigration Act, spearheaded by Congressman Frank, largely repealed the reliance on radical ideology as a basis for excluding aliens. Henceforth, aliens could be excluded for involvement in terrorist activity, but not for holding the belief, or “merely” advocating, that the United States government should be overthrown.
In short, as the Soviet Union teetered and collapsed, Washington convinced itself that the “End of History” was upon us: It was only a matter of time until progressive welfare-state democracy spread across the world. In the meantime, we were to believe that the American people would never again face significant threats to our security and our way of life.
The post-sovereign, international Left, which sought to eliminate distinctions between citizens and aliens, saw no contradiction in awarding aliens outside the U.S. the privileges of constitutional protections, with no expectation of their taking on the duties and loyalties of American citizens. Political progressives haughtily assumed that there were no real foreign threats on the horizon.
About a year later, jihadists bombed the World Trade Center. They’ve been striking us ever since.
So are we defenseless against our enemies?
Well, we are as defenseless as we can be when the impediments to strong national defense are self-imposed. As bleak as things may seem, most of the restrictions on us could be quickly reversed were the will there to do so. Eyes willfully shut can be willfully pried opened. We could recognize what ought to be the undeniable connection between radical ideology and violent action. We could subject Islamists to heightened scrutiny while remaining mindful of our Muslim allies — those who help us infiltrate terror networks and stop attacks, those who celebrate liberty and reject the imposition of fundamentalist sharia as a system of totalitarian governance.
We could recognize that, however one assesses the seriousness of the Communist threat and the likelihood that it might have pursued the violent overthrow of our government, the modern jihadist threat is vastly different. Whether its belligerent sharia-supremacist ideology leads inexorably to murderous atrocities is not an abstract academic question. The progression from scripture to incitement to violence is a fact too often repeated to doubt. We could therefore conclude that an immigration policy crafted for the challenges of the Soviet era is not suitable for our current threat environment. We could make sensible changes.
These are things we can do to become less defenseless, but they do not address a basic cultural question. Sometimes a people becomes defenseless because it decides it is no longer worth defending. This is a prospect we must dread as we hear, more relentlessly it seems with every new jihadist attack, that we are to blame — that America is always the culprit that provokes, not the target defending liberty against would-be tyrants.
A sound counterterrorism strategy can right a lot of wrongs and shore up a lot of weaknesses. Alas, it cannot convince us that what we stand for is worth the effort.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.