The year was 1955, the dawn of the cold war, and an old prophet was writing what would be his last book. It was a volume of history – The American Story, he called it – in which he reviewed the cavalcade of twists and turns that had brought us to that moment when we stood “at the top of the world, “ as he put it. There was no terrorist threat back then – not counting the threat of global annihilation that hung over us during those years of “duck and cover” and backyard bomb shelters. Yet Garet Garrett – a former editor of the New York Times and the Saturday Evening Post, an Old Right “isolationist” who lived in exile on a New Jersey farm – foresaw our present age, and what we would become:
"How, now, thou American, frustrated crusader, do you know where you are?
"Is it security you want? There is no security at the top of the world.
"To thine own self a liberator, to the world an alarming portent, do you know where you are going from here?"
Garrett knew where we were going, and we are living that reality today, sixty years after he wrote those words.
On a late summer Saturday night in the Chelsea district of New York City an explosion caused by an IED that injured 29 people shook the nation: a second bomb was discovered a few blocks from the first site and disabled. This was preceded by a pipe bomb going off at the site of a benefit run for families of US Marines in Seaside, New Jersey, a mere ninety minutes away: multiple devices were found at the same location and were disabled. Injuries were prevented only because the event was delayed due to the size of the crowd; five thousand people would have been in proximity otherwise. To top it off, a person invoking Allah stabbed eight people at a mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota – albeit not before first asking them if they were Muslim. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the stabbing spree, dubbing the perpetrator a “soldier of Islam.”
Imagine you are a visitor from Mars, watching all this from a very great height. Surely two aspects of this are striking:
To begin with, we have the world’s sole superpower, which purports to be the defender of the “international order,” unable to ensure the security of its own citizens on its own soil. We send our fleet thousands of miles away, to the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea to “protect” the sea lanes – and yet we cannot protect Americans on the streets of New York City.
Secondly, the reactions to this amazing fact reveal a strange bifurcation: government officials and the national news media (or do I repeat myself?) are in denial, while ordinary Americans are on the cusp between anger and hysteria. The reaction of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was emblematic of the former: he said the explosion was “intentional” but not linked to terrorism. He went on to say:
"Now, I want to be clear: Whatever the cause, whatever the intention here, New Yorkers will not be intimidated. We are not going to let anyone change who we are or how we go about our lives."
This is the very definition of terrorism, but apparently the policy of denial is supposed to keep people calm. What’s more likely is that it does just the opposite. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, apparently concerned that this was a bit too much cognitive dissonance for the public, weighed in by saying it was “obviously” terrorism, but that there’s no evidence it was linked to international terrorism.
One has to be remarkably obtuse to ignore the pattern: three attacks on the same day, one of which a terrorist group has claimed “credit” for, two of which are similar in their modes of operation – a bomb in a dumpster on a public thoroughfare. Authorities are now confirming that the Chelsea and Seaside explosive devices were put together by the same person. Put this in the context of continuing threats from Islamic terrorists that they will hit the homeland, and the only conclusion one can draw is that the events of September 17 were a coordinated attack – and the prime suspects aren’t Presbyterians.
It isn’t “Islamophobia” to acknowledge this – it’s realism. After all, the very “blowback” theory offered up by critics of US intervention in the Middle East has to lead us to this conclusion: it makes perfect sense that, having spent the greater part of the past twenty years leveling much of the Muslim world to the ground, some of the inhabitants would be coming after us.
What’s more, it’s an indisputable fact that the US government is now at war with one billion Muslims – at least, that’s how they perceive it. The origins of this war can be traced back to US foreign policy, yes, but that’s not the whole story. It’s gone way beyond that. Given the history of the post-9/11 era – the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria – a significant portion of the Muslim world has integrated this conflict into their religion. “Jihad” is a religious duty in mainstream Islam, and Muslims – unlike most Westerners – take their faith seriously.
So what’s the solution? Simply put, there is none. We cannot undo the history of the last fifteen years: the winds of blowback are unstoppable. The US government cannot possibly protect its citizens from random attacks on soft targets, such as the Chelsea district of New York City on a Saturday night, or a mall in Minnesota. Our vaunted system of universal surveillance hasn’t worked in the case of San Bernardino, Orlando, the Boston bombing, the Ft. Hood massacre – and it didn’t work on September 17.
We can no more stop the terrorist assault on the homeland than a child who puts his finger in an electric outlet can avoid a shock. This is the New Normal – and the consequences for our republic, our politics, and our everyday lives can only be painted in the darkest hues. This is why the first response of our elected “leaders” is kneejerk denial: an honest confession of their powerlessness would only inspire panic – and retribution.
Speaking of retribution: the response of ordinary Americans is quite different. Unlike our political class, they are realists who know what they see: given a choice between security and virtue-signaling they’ll take the former every time. What they don’t yet understand is that, as Garrett put it, “there is no security at the top of the world.”
Oh, they can go along with Donald Trump’s scheme of keeping all Muslims out of the country – but some will get through, not to mention those who are already here. We can build a wall, but can we inspect each and every ship that docks at our ports, and examine the cargo with a fine-toothed comb? We can blast ISIS to smithereens in the deserts of Syria – but this will merely disperse the contagion, spreading it to Europe, the steppes of Central Asia, and to the US itself.
What’s worse is that our own government has enabled the very enemies who plot our destruction. The US has openly allied with Islamist radicals in order to bring about regime change in Syria: the results of that policy are underscored by the recent incident in which US Special Forces were forced to flee from a village in the northern part of the country when the “moderate” Islamists we’ve been funding and arming threatened to slaughter them on the spot. The same thing happened in Libya, where we “liberated” the country from Ghaddafi and the very rebels we empowered with air strikes and aid murdered our Ambassador and three others at Benghazi. To go farther back in time, our aid to the Afghan mujahideen who were fighting the Soviets in the 1980s led to the consolidation of al-Qaeda and the rise of Osama bin Laden as the leader and symbol of a global terrorist insurgency.
To top it off, we still regard the Saudis as “allies” in spite of the fact that they had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. Washington is openly colluding with our enemies while the nation sleeps.
Trump, to his credit, is critical of these policies, at least in part. Yet his alternative vision is inchoate, vague, and contradictory on those rare occasions when he gets down to specifics. He is, in short, the embodiment of the American zeitgeist at this historical moment: enraged, confused, and liable to lash out in any direction.
Yet Trump’s critique of the political class, and his diagnosis of the US as an empire in decline, is what gives his message resonance – and it’s one reason why the political class hates him with a passion. His success is the measure of their failure.
We are headed for some dark times. In spite of that, however, there will always be those who will uphold the original spirit of our old republic and fight to defend it against all comers. Out of this will come a renewal – that is, if there is to be one.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN