The terrorist attack at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs, reportedly carried out by a white man named Robert Dear, is notable for how it has partially inverted the traditional political response. In contrast to an instance of jihadist terror, this time it's liberals, not conservatives, finding instances of inflammatory rhetoric that might have provided a seedbed for the attacker's motivations.
The respective responses are nowhere near identical, of course. But the attack does provide an interesting chance to illustrate the deficiencies of what has become the default approach to jihadist terrorism, and how it might be improved.
First, let's imagine how a traditional response might unfold if events were following the jihadist attack script. For starters, the whole of Colorado Springs would have been locked down while the attack was happening, for fear of collaborators. The terrorist likely would not have been given a chance to surrender. Everyone he'd ever known would be rounded up and interrogated for hours.
Afterward, conservative politicians would rant bitterly about how the nation is at war with "radical Christianity." Pro-life activists would be under a government microscope, all their communication and data surveilled, with agents planted in many evangelical churches, informing on the membership and tricking the dumber ones into pretend terrorist attacks.
Truly hardcore pro-lifers like Erick Erickson — who walks right up to the line of incitement in an argument expressing surprise at the relative lack of pro-life terror, comparing Planned Parenthood chief Cecile Richards to Josef Mengele, and claiming that the organization profits from the butchery of "millions of children" — would either be in prison or assassinated. Pro-life meetings would be routinely hit with drone strikes, with the regrettable consequence that the occasional wedding would be blown to smithereens (wars are messy, after all).
Basically, imagine the bungled '90s campaign against right-wing militias culminating in Ruby Ridge and Waco, except multiplied 100-fold.
Rather awful to imagine, isn't it? I see two clear lessons.
First is that, yes, a whole lot of conservative rhetoric around abortion is completely beyond the pale. Though it is not as yet very clear just what Dear believes, it's hard to believe at this point that he wasn't influenced by a seething climate of pro-life rhetoric — and he'd be hardly the first such terrorist in any case. As Ed Kilgore argues, conservatives' constant comparisons between abortion and the Holocaust, coupled with their insistence that the Second Amendment affords a right to revolution against tyrannical government, straightforwardly leads to a pro-terror position. To quote Jeb Bush as to whether he would kill baby Hitler: "Hell yeah."
However, far more important is the value of a restrained response to terror. When it's a white Christian massacring police and parents of young children, nobody flips out and starts yelling about internment camps or whites-only databases. And that is as it should be. The daily occurrence of non-jihadist mass shootings in this country demonstrates that a great deal of random violence does not actually disrupt the functioning of the country that much, in a concrete physical sense. For all but the worst-case scenarios, the supercharged emotionalism in the wake of a jihadist attack is far more likely to damage the nation than the attack itself.
Because as gratifying as it might be to hoist conservatives on their own petard and start passing laws persecuting Christian fanatics, it would be no more appropriate here than it was for American Muslims in New York City, or Irving, Texas, or a hundred other places. Collective punishment and brutal government repression (as distinguished from ordinary police work, proper mental health care, or gun control, which are, of course, appropriate) are always wrong — and likely to backfire in the long run. Conversely, providing an economically-secure and welcoming environment for all American citizens is crucial to preventing violent extremism from festering.
The truth is that terrorism is likely going to be around for a long time, as Rosa Brooks argues. (Indeed, it's been a part of world politics for hundreds of years already.) The economy is feeble at best, the internet has dramatically enabled the growth of extremist subcultures, and big chunks of the world are likely to become unlivable hellscapes as climate change proceeds, thus fueling displacement and political chaos.
Keeping a cool head in the face of the occasional awful disaster is going to be as important as it will be difficult.