Monsters and Children

How dumb bigots and political correctness have hijacked our national conversation about radical violent extremism. (By which I mean: talking to Muslims about al Qaeda.)

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The president of the United States may be the most powerful man in the world, but even an executive order cannot defy the immutable law of physics governing the relationship between having one’s cake and eating it, too.

The administration’s new 23-page strategy for countering violent extremism, released yesterday, seeks to preempt terrorist radicalization without specifically targeting Muslims, a "color blind" approach, so to speak. Let’s look at some of the specific proposals, and see how they might work.

1) U.S. Attorneys will be tasked with outreach and engagement to communities at risk of radicalization. So to combat white supremacist recruitment and ideology, the U.S. Attorney in Texas, for instance, might hold roundtables with leaders of the local white community. Keep in mind that white people, of course, are the target audience for radical racist recruiters.

2) The Justice Department will produce brochures that explain steps white people can take if they feel they have been discriminated against.

3) White people will be engaged on issues other than white supremacist ideology, so that they don’t feel that the government only sees them a national security threat.

4) Federal training programs will be scrutinized to make sure that the government is not including anti-white material in training programs for law enforcement officers.

5) The Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center, will develop case studies on preoperational indicators, i.e., what are the behaviors of white people that might indicate they are about to commit an act of racist violence.

6) The government will seek to counter racist propaganda by stressing the inclusiveness of American values and our commitment to seeing white people obtain equal access to American democracy, freedoms, and opportunities.

7) The government will support efforts to communicate to the American public that not all white people are extremists and seek to discourage those who would cast suspicion on the entire white community.

I could go on, but you get the point. This is not a one-size-fits-all strategy no matter how much the president wishes it could be. At its heart, the document is condescending to Muslims, who are expected to be grateful for its tactful omissions, while simultaneously implying that homegrown terrorism stems in some quantifiable way from legitimate Muslim grievances rather than the intrusion of an alien ideology. Meanwhile, the power centers in American politics, both left and right, have grown increasingly counterproductive in their attitudes toward Muslim Americans.

On the right, embodied in comments by Republican presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich, Muslims are treated largely as monsters, a seething mass of people who do not share American values and could, at any moment, establish a Taliban-style theocracy right here in the United States.

On the left, as epitomized by President Barack Obama’s new strategy, Muslims are treated as children who cannot be left to their own devices, who must be carefully tutored in proper behavior but not made to feel like they are singled out, lest someone pick on them.

Virtually no one seems willing to speak to Muslims about this issue as if they are just people. In part, that’s because our politicians and policymakers do not themselves seem to understand why they prioritize jihadist terrorism over other forms of violence.

The reason jihadist terrorism is treated as a greater national security threat than racism and other forms of extremism has nothing to do with the nature of Islamist states or a failure to accept Muslims as part of the American family.

It is as simple as this: Terrorists aligned with al Qaeda and related movements have proven themselves willing and able to plan and carry out mass casualty attacks on a consistent basis; other extremists, thus far, have not.

It’s true that considerably more Americans have died on U.S. soil at the hands of racists than jihadists during the last ten years. But these attacks are generally categorized as hate crimes and receive less media coverage, primarily because most of them consist of individuals targeting other individuals.

It really is that simple. Glenn Beck may fear Muslims, and Newt Gingrich may suspect them of plotting to impose shariah law on America, but neither viewpoint would be part of our national discourse if not for 9/11. And Obama would not be introducing a strategy to combat violent extremism if not for the ongoing threat of a mass casualty event.

We should not be complacent and assume that white supremacists and other extremists will never develop the will to carry out mass casualty attacks on a consistent basis. But the fact is that over the last 10 years, the majority of specific and credible plots to perpetrate mass casualty events have originated within the tiny fraction of 1 percent of the Muslim community that accepts al Qaeda’s tactics.

It is appropriate for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to single out individuals who possess the inclination and the capability to kill dozens or hundreds of people at a time. That is what drives the use of informants, drones, and other extraordinary tactics. That is why the government pursues al Qaeda and its adherents with such laser focus.

But let’s be clear: al Qaeda adherents are targeted because of their tactical focus on mass casualties, not because they are Islamists and not because they are Muslims. The fact that they are found among Muslims is an unavoidable reality, as is the corollary that law enforcement activities countering al Qaeda will take place among Muslims.

Discrimination against Muslims in this country is unfortunately real. And it is unfortunately true that some American Muslims mix their religion and politics in ways that makes other Americans uncomfortable. But neither of these facts is responsible for — or even all that relevant to — America’s focus on combating al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, the talking points have taken possession of our politicians.

It is unnecessary and counterproductive to treat the broad community of American Muslims as if they are monsters to be feared or children to be placated. It’s time to start talking to them as what they are — Americans who can handle a frank conversation about the safety of Americans.

J.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.