Charleston and Our Tragic Impotence

The reaction to the slaughter of nine members of an African-American church in South Carolina demonstrated by the members of the affected community has been one of unfathomable transcendence. The residents of Charleston, guided by divine faith, have responded to unspeakable violence with forgiveness and behaved in a manner that is beyond admirable. The reaction to this event from those who were not immediately affected by it has been quite different. Some have embraced divisiveness, aggression, and litigiousness while others succumbed to fatalism and despair.  These reactions to this act of terror have been muted expressions of torment at the horrible understanding that none of us could have, or likely ever will be able to, prevent evil people with wicked intentions from doing their worst.

From almost the moment the news of this barbarity broke (an earthquake is a “tragedy,” this was something else entirely), the commentariat on the left began asking why we as a nation do not call this kind of attack an act of “terrorism.” Of course, we do. A variety of analysts from across the political spectrum condemned this cruel act a terrorist attack. In a definitional sense, the Charleston shootings do not vary discernably from those executed by ISIS or al-Qaeda-inspired lone wolf attackers.

When a 32-year-old ISIS devotee shot and killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo outside the Canadian National War Memorial and stormed parliament in October of Last year, his attack terrorized a community. It was preceded just days prior by hit-and-run attack on two Canadian soldiers executed by a similarly inspired individual. A 16-hour hostage drama in Sydney, Australia, also had its roots in Islamist ideology and terrorized a city. When two gunmen executed a strike on the provocative conference planned by Pamela Geller’s group in Garland, Texas, it was also terrorism. And when a Bosnian man drove a car into a crowd in Austria, emerging from the wreck only to stab passersby until he was subdued, that, too, was a terrorist attack.

The terrorizing effects of all of these events are not distinct from the impact the assault on black parishioners in South Carolina has had on the African-American community. Many on the right made these links, but that did not satisfy those who were supposedly asking why the Charleston attack was not universally dubbed “terrorism.” Their refusal to take yes for an answer exposes the dishonest nature of the question. What they would ask if they possessed the courage is why the United States does not regard the fight against virulent and violent racism like that espoused by the Charleston shooter as the same national military priority and moral imperative as is global war on Islamic radicalism.

Perhaps they do not ask this aloud because the answer is self-evident. Michael Rubin noted recently that the legal definition of terrorism is something distinct from that which you might find in Miriam-Websters. This is one reason FBI Director James Comey refused to call Roof’s attack “terrorism.” Furthermore, those incidents above are dramatically divergent from one recent example of the kind of Islamic terrorism the West is presently fighting a war against: the Charlie Hebdo massacre. That attack, in the planning stages for years after being mandated by an al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, was conducted by two foreign-trained militants. What’s more, that attack was probably evitable since one of the attackers was both known to and monitored by global counterterrorism agencies.

Another distinction between Charleston and the Islamic radicalism spreading from the jungles of the Philippines to the shores of North Africa is that the latter appears ascendant. For decades, radical Islamic terrorism has been a feature of geopolitics, but the rise of nascent Islamic caliphates across the Middle East and North Africa has created an attractive veneer of novelty for aspiring recruits to the cause. By contrast, Charleston shooter Dylann Roof was a proud anachronism. He flew and revered the flags of regimes like the Confederacy, Apartheid South Africa, and Rhodesia – long defunct states that embraced discredited ideologies undone by decades of military and socio-economic pressure from without. Critics of the war on terrorism would do well to internalize the generational scale that characterizes successful wars against ideologies that would compete for legitimacy with Western democratic liberalism like those that eventually undid both the Confederates and the National Party.

But the commentary class has not engaged in much of this substantive and valuable debate. Instead, they have thrashed impotently in their heartache at old grievances and tired hobbyhorses.

In the wake of the shooting, many on the left including the President of the United States demanded a renewed push for federal gun control legislation. But the left is certainly not interested in elevating Roof’s minor pending drug charge to a felony, which would have prevented him from legally purchasing or owning a gun. What they demand is a reprise of the “national conversation” about gun laws that followed the Newtown shootings; a conversation that ended decisively — and badly for gun control advocates — months later when a Democrat-led Senate failed to approve even modest amendments to federal gun ownership laws.

Many have also begun to indict the old Confederate battle flag that flies ignominiously over South Carolina’s state capital. Many commentators and political actors from both sides of the aisle, mostly from the North and West, have demanded that the flag be furled following this attack. The value of this dubious symbol is a fine debate to have, but it is beside the point. If we are to take Roof’s word for what inspired him to engage in this affront to human decency, which is we all have, then we must also accept that his hatred for the United States as presently constituted is also rooted in its disrespect for long extinct Southern segregationist culture. If the charge that some are making is that the state of South Carolina is somehow complicit in these brutal murders, that is an extraordinary claim wanting for similarly extraordinary evidence. Those leveling such a charge will find the evidentiary hurdles necessary to prove it impossible to overcome. According to the FBI’s 2013 crime statistics, less than one percent of the murders committed that year were by whites targeting blacks. That meager figure is a trend, not an aberration. What’s more, despite the fact that the South has more violent crime than any other American region, this statistic indicates that there is no epidemic of white-on-black violence in the former Confederate states.

It is perhaps understandable that so much of the post-Charleston conversation has been centered on matters that have nothing to do with that shooting: unworkable gun control tropes, a peripheral if morally questionable flag, and, of course, the other political party. The striking and terrifying fact of the matter is that Roof’s attack would have been next to impossible to prevent, as were the attacks in Sydney, Ottawa, Graz, and Garland. Someday, though, the West might be so victorious in its efforts to combat Islamic radicalism that lone wolf attacks like those might be as shocking to our consciences as was the attack in Charleston. Rather than accept them as a deplorable new reality, outbursts of Islamic radicalism will be viewed as a departure from the norm to which we have become accustomed. The lamentable truth is that we will probably never be able to accept the truly terrible reality that horrible things happen, evil exists, and there will always be moments when we will be rendered virtually powerless before it.


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Charleston and Our Tragic Impotence

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Georgia on Our Minds

Podcast: Seven theories about Jon Ossoff's loss.

We’re podcasting a day early here at COMMENTARY in order to take the measure of the result in the Georgia special House election. Abe Greenwald, Noah Rothman, and I posit seven possible theories to explain what happened—and then we attack the theories! It’s positively Talmudic. Give a listen.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.

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Pamela Geller: The Threat to Free Speech

The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:

The real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.

Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.

With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.

Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:

  • Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
  • Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
  • Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
  • Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
  • Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
  • Banned from Britain.

A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.

This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.

The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.

The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?

There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.

Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.

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The Democrats’ Crippling Apocalypse Fix

Hair immolation isn't a strategy.

The Democratic Party is in the midst of some soul searching after an overhyped Democratic candidate failed to flip a Republican district. For many, that soul-searching has taken the form of blame- shifting.

Buoyed by district-level polling and the abiding sense that the country was eager for an opportunity to censure President Donald Trump, Democrats became convinced of Jon Ossoff’s electability in the race to represent Georgia’s 6th District in Congress. Amid their grief over this misjudgment, Democrats are groping in search of a cause for this letdown other than their own imprudence.

The voters in Georgia’s 6th didn’t respond to Ossoff’s centrist appeals and cautious campaign, some contended. What made the difference was vicious outside attacks like one (condemned by all parties) that sought to tie the Democratic candidate to the shootings in Alexandria, Virginia last week. The notion that the affluent, well-educated, urban professionals who populate this Trump-skeptical, GOP-leaning district in the outskirts of metro Atlanta are just too redneck to vote Democrat doesn’t wash.

Others have suggested that Ossoff’s message was poorly calibrated to meet this particular moment. The Democratic candidate’s reluctance to specifically campaign against Donald Trump by name was, in their estimation, a miscalculation. “One important lesson is that when they go low, going high doesn’t f**king work,” declared Center for American Progress’ exasperated president, Neera Tanden. “In an incendiary time, Ossoff has striven to be nonflammable,” wrote The New Yorker‘s Charles Bethea. Indeed, Ossoff’s reluctance to call for Donald Trump’s impeachment and his skepticism toward progressive spending proposals led some liberals to speculate (sotto voce, of course) that this was the wrong man to pilot a “Trump-backlash trial balloon.”

Implied in these frustrated expressions of angst is the notion that Ossoff just didn’t speak the language of apocalypse to which Democrats in the age of Trump are accustomed. But this is untrue. Ossoff did speak this language. He devoted time on the trail to lecturing about the threat to American “prosperity and security” represented by climate change. “History will condemn us,” Ossoff said after Trump announced his intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords. He cut campaign spots warning that Trump “could start an unnecessary war” and implied that he lacked the judgment to determine the appropriate response to the prospect of an incoming volley of nuclear weapons. In his concession speech, Ossoff praised his supporters for standing with him even “as a darkness has crept across the planet.” Is this what amounts to caution and prudence in the modern Democratic rhetorical catalogue?

Democrats have been remarkably reluctant to conduct any public postmortem on their party’s 2016 campaign, in part, because its members don’t believe they did anything wrong. Perhaps they are operating on the assumption that Donald Trump’s victory was some kind of fluke and the GOP’s historic majorities on the state-and federal-level were the natural results of a pendulum swing against similarly prohibitive Democratic majorities. Whatever the thinking, this reluctance has led to what may become a crippling strategic disconnect. The Democratic Party’s base and its elected representatives are not on the same page.

Jon Ossoff and his team used the unprecedented resources at their disposal to test and refine a message that was perfectly attuned to voters in Georgia’s 6th District. Despite that well-orchestrated effort, he still came up short. Democratic partisans, meanwhile, having no other indicator of their rhetorical efficacy than their hysterical friends, are convinced that their representatives are simply not fraught enough. Democratic voters, not their elected representatives, call the tune. Eventually, they’ll get what they demand.

Ossoff and the Democrats played a good hand well, but not well enough to beat the house. That happens. The risk for Democrats in this instance is to blame this losing candidate for failing to indulge their insatiable ids. It’s a risk for any party to elevate candidates for high office solely because they tickle their base voters’ erogenous zones. As The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson warned, “get ready for the Democrat version of Christine O’Donnell.” For Democrats in these overheated times, that’s a risk they seem willing to take.

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The Chaotic Post-War World Takes Shape

A post-ISIS Potsdam Conference.

Max Boot is right: Russia is not going to risk igniting a third world war by targeting coalition aircraft over the skies of Syria. And yet it would be a mistake to ignore Moscow’s warnings. They are indicative of the unstable international environment that could become the new status quo in a world after ISIS.

As the ISIS threat is disrupted and the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria shrinks amid pressure from coalition fighters and their allies, the sovereign powers that intend to maintain their positions in the region after that conflict are asserting themselves in unpredictable and increasingly violent ways.

On Tuesday, the United States shot down an armed Iranian drone that officials said posed a direct threat to U.S.-led coalition troops on the ground in Syria. It was the second time this month that an Iranian-made military UAV was shot out of the sky after it allegedly targeted U.S.-supported forces. In a major escalation, a U.S. warplane engaged and shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber on Sunday when it reportedly bombed American-backed forces laying siege to the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa. Moscow responded to this attack on its vassal state with unnerving threats.

“From now on, in areas where Russian aviation performs combat missions in the skies of Syria, any airborne objects found west of the Euphrates River, including aircraft and unmanned vehicles belonging to the international coalition, tracked by means of Russian land and air anti-aircraft defense, will be considered air targets,” read a statement released by the Russian Ministry of Defense. The implication that Russia would target and potentially attack Western aircraft was later downgraded to a promise to escort them out of area. But the important bit wasn’t Russia’s threat but the region Moscow had defined as off limits.

By delineating the territory west of the Euphrates as beyond the scope of the anti-ISIS coalition mission, Russia has drawn the preliminary outlines of an informal Syrian partition. It is no coincidence that the two Iranian drones destroyed by coalition forces were struck near the Syrian town of al-Tanf, located on Syria’s southeastern border with Iraq. According to former Obama administration advisor and Georgetown Professor Colin Kahl, the regime wants “to own the rest of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border, where they hope to link [with] Iranian-backed Shia militia.” Even if the West is not preparing for the post-conflict world, Iran, Syria, and Russia are.

The only post-war planning that appears to be on the minds of Western geopolitical architects is the need to rebuild Syria, if only to stave off a humanitarian disaster and prevent further migrations of displaced refugees into Europe. In early April, the European Union’s Federica Mogherini revealed just such a plan, contingent upon progress toward Bashar al-Assad’s abdication. This announcement was overshadowed, however, by a brutal chemical attack by regime forces on civilians—an attack that resulted in direct hostilities between the United States and the Syrian regime.

Efforts to create a post-war power-sharing framework have stalled, but the task is growing more urgent by the day. With Iran and its proxies, Russia, and Damascus on one side, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE and their proxies on another, and the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, and Australia presiding over all of it, theompeting interests in Syria are impossible to manage absent some kind of structure. Even when ISIS is routed and scattered, the Syrian regime seems likely to endure in some form. That alone ensures that these powers will remain at cross-purposes and, thus, that there will be no speedy troop withdrawals from the region.

The chaos in Syria is only going to get worse as the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State is contained and controlled. Great power politics is about to make a comeback in the Middle East, and the West doesn’t seem to be ready for it.

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Iran’s Real Missile Target Wasn’t Syria

Old obsessions die hard.

On June 18, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched missiles into Syria in retaliation for a terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb the previous week. While these missiles appear to have caused no casualties, Iranian officials were clear that their target went far beyond the Islamic State. According to the Tehran Times:

Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC aerospace unit, hailed the missile raids, saying any more evil act against Iran will result in “costly consequences.” “Our enemies should know that Tehran is not London or Paris,” Hajizadeh stated, a reference to the European capitals coming under numerous terrorist attacks over the past years. Iran vowed quick revenge after ISIS suicide bombers and gunmen stormed the parliament and the mausoleum of Imam Khomeini on June 7, killing 18 and injuring at least 56. In a statement released after the attacks, the IRGC vowed avenge, saying, “The spilling of any pure blood will not go unanswered.” Also, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, head of the Iranian armed forces, pledged “unforgettable lessons” to terrorists and their backers after the Tehran assault. Former IRGC chief Mohsen Rezaei tweeted, “This was just the beginning of the revenge. Harsher slap is underway.” Rezaei also called the missile attacks “the message of Iran’s authority” to “the supporters of terrorism.”

Ahmad Majidyar, an Iran analyst at the Middle East Institute and a talented Iran-watcher, noted that Rezaei tweeted, “Mr. Netanyahu, this was just the message of Zolfiqar (missile); the message of Shahab and Zelzal is much stronger!” before erasing his tweet.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry has recently been making the rounds lobbying for a Nobel Peace Prize. Last week, for example, he traveled to Norway where he sat on a podium with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. There, both criticized the Gulf Arab state and the current U.S. administration. In Kerry’s quest for the prize, he either lied about U.S. allies or leaked highly classified intelligence by detailing the (still-classified) contents of conversations. Either way, he sought to depict himself as a peacemaker when, in reality, he emboldened and resourced the main source of instability in the region. In his quest to secure an accord and to cement his own personal legacy at any strategic cost, he watered down language about Iran’s ballistic missile program. This provided Iran with cover, or at least enough legal ambiguity, to pursue its ballistic missile program.

Kerry and his team knew Iran’s aggressive intent but did not care. Numerous Iranian officials—including those surrounding Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—have pledged to develop and even use nuclear weapons. It was Hassan Rouhani, as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, who managed, resourced, and oversaw Iran’s covert nuclear program to develop such weaponry. Indeed, he subsequently bragged about it.

Despite Iran lobbyists’ efforts to suggest that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never said that Israel’s should be wiped off the map, pictures from Tehran and Iran’s own official translations tell another story. When Major-General Hassan Moghadam died in an explosion at a missile laboratory and test facility in 2011, the Iranian press reported that his last will and testament asked that his epitaph read, “The man who enabled Israel’s destruction.” A year ago, Iran tested to ballistic missiles inscribed in Hebrew with calls for Israel’s destruction.

Iran’s immediate target might have been the Islamic State, but its ideological goal remains eradication of Israel. That the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards tweeted acknowledgment of such goal should not be as easily erased as his tweet. After all, Iran deal or not, it is the Revolutionary Guards and not Zarif who are in charge of the military applications of Iran’s nuclear program.

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