The Republican wing of the War Party – and their Democratic doppelgangers – sure are having a field day over the San Bernardino massacre. At last they have a superficially plausible rationale for invading Syria and sticking Uncle Sam’s foot into yet another hopeless Middle Eastern quagmire – and they can cite poll numbers in favor of their half-baked war plans. And yet if we look at the facts of the San Bernardino case, there is absolutely zero evidence that ISIS was in any way involved in masterminding the murder spree of an American citizen and his Pakistani immigrant wife. We have this from no less an authority than the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Not only that, but Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik had been planning their terrorist spree long before ISIS became the latest fave rave on the jihadi hit parade. As the New York Times reports:
“Syed Rizwan Farook, the man at the center of last week’s massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., might have plotted an attack as far back as 2012 with one of his longtime friends, senior law enforcement officials said Wednesday. In addition, the F.B.I. revealed Wednesday that Mr. Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, were discussing jihad and martyrdom online in 2013 before they were married and she came to the United States.
“The new timeline suggests that the couple were considering violent action before the Islamic State rose to prominence in 2014 and began trying to inspire sympathizers to carry out attacks in the West.”
The jihadi version of Bonnie and Clyde were radicalized “quite a long time before their attack,” Bloomberg News quotes FBI Director James Cromey as saying – and well before the rise of ISIS. Apparently the two were canoodling online well before their marriage, with the topic of discussion being the romance of martyrdom in the service of jihad.
So even if we flattened Raqqa, and made it glow in the dark – as Ted Cruz wants to do – this would do exactly nothing to prevent future terrorist attacks. It would make a lot more sense to bomb San Bernardino – which is to say, no sense at all.
And of course the same people who want us to occupy Syria in response to the San Bernardino attack are now screaming that the piddling “reforms” represented by the USA Freedom Act, which marginally reined in US spying on Americans, were responsible for the inability of law enforcement to nip the murder plot in the bud. Yet the new timeline we’re being presented with contradicts this scenario: Farook and his bride-to-be were planning this well before the Snowden revelations and the passage of the Freedom Act.
Furthermore, the online communications between Farook and Malik were legally open to surveillance by US law enforcement, since she was in Pakistan and he was in America. At a time when the authorities were scooping up this data as a matter of course, they simply missed it. And the reason they missed it is because they were collecting everything, with no way to differentiate some teenage girl’s text messages to her friends from a terrorist’s communications with her co-conspirator husband-to-be.
As Rand Paul said at the most recent Republican presidential debate:
“You know, I think Marco [Rubio] gets it completely wrong. We are not any safer through the bulk collection of all Americans’ records. In fact, I think we’re less safe. We get so distracted by all of the information, we’re not spending enough time getting specific immigration – specific information on terrorists.”
Paul went on to criticize Rubio for his supposedly weak stance on protecting US borders, limning a recent column by Ann Coulter, who wrote:
“Why are Republicans talking about starting a war in Syria to stop Muslim immigrants from killing Americans in America? Is it our job to straighten out Syria? Can’t our government just stop bringing the terrorists here? If Rubio thinks he knows how to govern Syria, he’s free to run for president there. (Except he’d have to stop talking about his dad the bartender because Muslims don’t drink.)
”Republicans love pointing out that all the gun restrictions proposed by Democrats after every mass shooting would have done absolutely nothing to stop that particular mass shooting.
”But the GOP’s demand that we take out ISIS would also have done nothing to prevent the San Bernardino attack. As we know from Jim Comey, the director of the FBI: Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik were planning a terrorist attack against Americans before ISIS existed.
”It’s as if there’s a law of toughness conservation: The weaker a candidate is on protecting our borders, the more aggressively he talks about bombing foreign countries, a move known as ‘the Lindsey Graham.’"
Coulter’s Law of Toughness Conservation is an interesting concept, but before I get to that I’d just point out that, like the “nuke ISIS” school of thought, the confiscate-all-guns argument, and the universal surveillance panacea, the no-Muslims solution is no solution at all. Is it really necessary to point out that Farook was an American citizen, born in Chicago, who lived here all his life: does the Trump-Coulter Plan include deporting US Muslims – all four million of them – as well as the millions of illegal immigrants?
It isn’t going to happen – and shouldn’t happen.
What’s interesting about Coulter’s column, however, is that she seems to have evolved beyond her “invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity” platform, and now opposes America’s regime change policy in the Middle East. And her observation that the Lindsey Grahams of this world are as indifferent to border security as they are to the costs of war is trenchant and true.
Furthermore, the reverse is generally the case: those politicians, particularly the ones with presidential aspirations, who are skeptical of inviting the world seem equally skeptical of our policy of invading the world. Trump opposed the Iraq war, as he never tires of reminding us, and would leave Syria to Putin’s tender mercies; Ted Cruz has argued quite eloquently against our regime change operation in Syria and is now going around saying he supports a foreign policy of “America first,” a slogan with distinctly “isolationist” connotations.
This split in the Republican party over immigration and foreign policy dramatizes the reconfiguration of the America political landscape in the age of terrorism. On one side of the fissure are the internationalists, like Jeb Bush, who aver that immigration, whether legal or not, is an “act of love,” and who also want to reinsert US troops in the Middle East in a big way. On the other side stand the nationalists, like Cruz, and libertarians of the Rand Paul school, who want to restrict immigration from Muslim countries specifically, and are more cautious about projecting American military power into a region where its exercise has resulted in more chaos rather than less.
Both sides are trying to quickly solve a problem – how to stop terrorism on American soil – that has no immediate solution.
The internationalists, with their invade-the-world-invite-the-world program, would quickly make a bad situation much worse: the blowback resulting from their world-conquering foreign policy would strengthen the terrorist outfits they claim they want to destroy. Lindsey Graham keeps warning about the imminence of another 9/11 – almost as if he knows exactly what his warmongering policies would lead to.
The nationalists, on the other hand, are oblivious not only to the practical impossibility of carrying out their mass deportation schemes, but are also oblivious to history. Even if we seal the borders, and refrain from sending a single soldier to the Middle East, people have long memories – especially those who have suffered the consequences of our foreign policy by losing family members, and seeing their homelands destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died in the two wars we waged against Iraq, and the devastation wreaked on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the rest of the region is incalculable. It will be a long time before that is all water under the bridge. In the meantime, the terrorist legions have a very deep pool of potential recruits – including in this country.
So what’s the answer?
There are no easy answers – and some problems just don’t have solutions, at least ones that are quick and easy. The first thing to do is to stop intervening in the Middle East and leave the Muslim world to stew in its own poisoned juices. In this, anti-interventionists clearly side with the nationalists in their opposition to foreign wars – and we must take this opportunity to point out to them that the neoconservative empire-building project is the source of our current woes.
However, we must also point out the limited practical value of using immigration law to prevent terrorism on our soil. A ban on Muslims entering the US would have to mean a ban not only on visitors and immigrants from Muslim countries, but also a ban on travel from most Western European countries, where millions of Muslims hold EU passports. That is simply impossible, and it isn’t going to happen. Also, the targeting of Muslims who are US citizens is a wrong turn that will quickly boomerang: aside from being wrong in and of itself, it won’t be long before the anti-Muslim hysteria is directed at other groups seen as “disloyal,” including political dissenters on the right as well as the left.
We got here by ignoring the warnings of anti-interventionists who predicted the very dangerous situation we find ourselves in today. The cycle of foreign wars and domestic repression is accelerating at such a rate that the future of this country as a free society is very much in doubt. We won’t decelerate it in a day, but we can and must try to put the brakes on before the inevitable crash obliterates our old republic and all that makes life worth living.
It didn’t take that long to get where we are today, but I can tell you this: it will take a long term effort to undo what has been done. What is required is persistence, a devotion to principle – and most of all patience.
Scheduling note: This is my last column of the year. I’m taking a break for the week of Christmas. I’ll return on Friday, January 1 – unless Something Big happens, in which case I’ll be right here at my post.
To all who gave so generously to our fundraising drive – a great big thanks! We depend on our readers and supporters to fund this web site, and I know I speak for the whole Antiwar.com crew when I say we are eternally grateful for your support. Happy holidays to all.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN