Opinion

The real existential threat of radical Islam

Terrorists are militarily weak — but politically powerful

How much should we fear militant Islam?

This is a crucially important question that countries and citizens throughout the West need to ask themselves. Will Wilkinson's recent contribution to answering it should be required reading for those looking to reflect on the question intelligently, because his answer is both smart and wrong — and because its error is one commonly made by otherwise sensible liberals.

Writing in response to those in and around the Trump administration who are convinced that radical Islam constitutes an existential threat to the United States and the West — including White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, senior adviser Stephen Miller, deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka, and CIA director Mike Pompeo — Wilkinson powerfully rejects the contention, arguing that it comes nowhere close to constituting a threat to the existence of the U.S. or any Western country.

On one level Wilkinson is quite right: Muslim-majority nations, whether individually or collectively, are far too weak to threaten the U.S. and the West militarily in any serious way. And there are far too few Muslims living within Western nations for them to have any chance at all of transforming these societies from the inside (by imposing Sharia law, for example). Add in the fact that the West is allied with a number of countries in the Islamic world, not to mention the additional fact that most Muslims living within most Western countries are committed to upholding liberal political norms, and we're left with the distinct impression that those who consider radical Islam an existential threat are badly deluded and more than a little paranoid.

Yet there is one respect in which Wilkinson misses a crucially important aspect of the danger. Radical Islam doesn't constitute a threat to the existence or territorial integrity of the United States or any other Western nation. But it does constitute a realistic existential threat to our liberal democratic form of government.

Consider the consequences of a single morning of terror in New York City and Washington nearly 16 years ago. The 9/11 attacks provoked the U.S. to: invade two countries on the other side of the globe (starting wars that linger on to this day); form a new Cabinet-level department devoted to thwarting future attacks (Homeland Security); vastly expand foreign and domestic surveillance; institute a covert policy of torture; and significantly loosen the legal obstacles to presidents assassinating terrorist subjects abroad, even when they are American citizens.

The same dynamic has transformed the state of Israel in the decade and a half since the second intifada began, leaving the country significantly less liberal than it once was — and this despite the fact that large-scale suicide attacks are no longer a regular or frequent occurrence. Likewise in Western Europe, where a series of spectacular and gruesome terrorist attacks in recent years has prompted numerous countries to adopt draconian laws and policies designed to prevent future acts of terror.

Wilkinson would most likely claim these responses to terrorism are an overreaction. As he points out, Americans are "more likely to die from a lightning strike than an act of terrorism committed by a Muslim.” And it's true! Especially for people who don't live in the major cities that are the preferred targets for terror attacks. A person who spends his days in the suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska, has very close to a zero chance of ending up a victim of Islamic terrorism.

But that's beside the point.

A lightning strike is an act of fate — a random, pointless event with no intent behind it. An act of terrorism, by contrast, is all intent: a human being, and often a conspiracy of many human beings, carrying out an imminently political act of deadly violence by randomly striking people residing within a specific country. (In this respect, most of the multi-victim gun massacres that are so lamentably common in the United States resemble lightning strikes more than they do acts of terrorism, since most of them are committed with no political intent at all.)

It is this distinct mixture of intent and randomness that makes terrorism uniquely terrifying. It's an act of war — asymmetrical war, to use the technical term, in which the vastly weaker side in a conflict uses guile and ruthlessness to inflict maximum harm on his opponent, randomly killing as many civilians as possible. The point isn't to conquer territory, as a more equally matched opponent might try to do with a battlefield offensive. It's to inspire panic among potential victims, to force a response that draws the victim of terrorist violence further into the fight, like a dumb, awkward giant swatting angrily and impotently at the wasp that just stung him on the back of his thigh.

This seems to imply that the most rational response to terrorism might be to resist the temptation to give the terrorist what he wants, which is for the victim to undertake a sweeping counter-offensive that inspires others to join the battle on the side of the terrorists. I suspect that Wilkinson sees his own essay as a contribution to convincing his fellow Americans to follow this exact advice.

Unfortunately, the advice is bound to go unheeded — at least so long as the threat of terrorism persists. That's because human beings don't respond to the prospect of violent death with reason. They respond with fear, and a desperate effort to protect themselves.

So France responded to the series of attacks that struck the country in 2015 by curtailing civil liberties in order to prevent future attacks, narrowing and weakening the country's liberal democratic character. Was this a mistake? Not if we imagine subsequent attacks taking place after the government refused to curtail civil liberties — an eventuality that would have quickly prompted calls for … the curtailing of civil liberties in order to prevent future attacks.

Terrorists may be close to powerless in a conventional military sense, but their political power is considerable — and almost entirely a function of their capacity to carry out deadly attacks randomly but regularly.

That's the sense in which militant Islam poses an existential threat to liberal democratic government. The more that terrorists succeed in striking the West, the more precarious Western freedoms will become. And the more the West acts to prevent terrorists from succeeding in striking the West, the more precarious Western freedoms will become. That makes terrorism uniformly poisonous to liberal democracies, and leaves them with only one viable option: Wipe out the terrorists — or, in the act of attempting to wipe them out, convince them to give up the fight for good.

Short of that, we're guaranteed to remain just one spectacular terrorist attack away from a further loss of our freedom. No matter how many smart pundits explain why it shouldn't be this way.

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