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The New Defeatist Chic

In ‘The New Yorker,’ George Packer advocates a fashionable do-nothing approach to terrorism. That’s dead wrong.

Liel Leibovitz
July 19, 2016
Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
World Reacts To The Nice Terrorist Attack Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
World Reacts To The Nice Terrorist Attack Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

What is to be done about the wave of terror that washes over the world every damn day? If you ask The New Yorker’s George Packer, nothing much: “No revelations come from the massacre in Nice,” Packer wrote shortly after Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel propelled a 21-ton truck down a crowded promenade, killing 84 and wounding hundreds more. “There is nothing to be learned. This is what we live with, what we are getting used to living with. None of it is surprising—that’s the most frightening thing of all.”

Like a child uncomprehendingly staring at a rainbow and deciding that such strange beauty must be beyond reason, Packer, too, believes that Bouhlel and his fellow ISIS loyalists are practicing a new and personal sort of terrorism, “jihadism as impulse, as excuse,” free from the rigid ideological and organizational structures that came with membership in, say, a more quaint group like al Qaeda. That Bouhlel rented the truck days in advance; that he calmly timed his attack to coincide with the end of a fireworks show to ensure his bloody runway would be packed with innocents; that he was in possession of an automatic 7.65 mm pistol, a cartridge clip, several cartridges, used and unused, a replica AK-47 and M-16, and a hand grenade; and that he had driven down the promenade twice in the days leading up to the attack and appeared to have texted an accomplice, saying, “I have the material”—all of that hardly matters to Packer, who’d rather we chalk up all this obvious deliberation to some kind of inchoate impulse, a terror tantrum that can’t be stopped. Under that logic—shared, sadly, by the usually adroit French prime minister, Manuel Valls—there’s nothing intelligent, sophisticated, cultivated, civilized, decent folks anywhere from Orlando to Orléans can do but keep calm and carry on.

That’s dead wrong: That today’s holy warriors are looser about their elected affinities and savvier about their social media hardly makes them impossible to stop. But before we—the grandchildren of the men and women who eradicated the Nazis and the children of the cold warriors who triumphed over Communism—meet our new threat, we must be able to define it clearly, and here we seem to run into a problem that is epistemological as much as it is political.

To hear the guardians of the good-willed galaxy tell it, the universe we live in is a see-saw. On the one end, beastly terrorists, like zombies, mindlessly perpetrate their gruesome attacks; on the other, the brutes of the far right, just as mindless, react to the bloodshed with their own brand of bigotry, which would inevitably lead to more bloodshed and more madness. In the middle, keeping the balance and the peace, are the nuanced and mature adults on the center and the left, wise souls who believe that globalism’s hope will defeat terrorism’s fear.

This worldview has brought about a host of startling alignments. In France, Germany, Austria, America, and you-name-it, center and left political outfits are looking at the world and surmising that the chief threat to its stability and prosperity are the restless hordes of the far right. Through some absent-minded fit, the same scholastically minded folks all too ready to dismiss the new jihad as nothing more than a feeling believe, when it comes to their own backyard fascists, that the right-wing goons are well-organized, thoroughly disciplined, and dearly committed to disturbing the democratic order. Why Mark would obey a doctrine while Mohamed is merely capable of a whim is anybody’s guess, but the left’s tendency to see The Other as not entirely capable of possessing agency and therefore in constant need of the mindful white person’s protection is nothing new. With this dogma beating strong, the wise souls embrace immigrants even as they refuse to contemplate any safe and sane immigration policy, and court soft Islamists while demanding absolutely no denunciations of benighted beliefs. If you’re a Republican congressman, say, and you call homosexuals a small and extremely powerful group of transgressors who should be punished, the wise souls will rightly condemn you and call for your head; but be a Baltimore imam and say the exact same things, and the Democratic president of the United States may just come knocking for a friendly visit.

Such a double standard is not only morally revolting, it’s politically disastrous as well. Because any attempt to reform Muslim societies from the outside—using either soft power or the harder, militarized variety—reeks of American imperialism and calls to mind the ghost of George W. Bush, the political left has committed itself to a radically nonconfrontational posture toward anything pertaining to Islam. Terrorism strikes in Nice, Medina, or San Bernardino? Depend on stern pundits first urging you not to jump to conclusions and then, when the perpetrator is revealed to be another ISIS drone, writing off the attack to some external and more manageable force like mental illness, homophobia, or petty criminality. This is not a coincidence: Having resolved not to use force against Muslim states, even the ones openly and giddily sponsoring terrorism, and having committed to repenting for what they see as the Original Sin of American imperialism, those on the political left have very few options but to retreat further into their own narrative, into the hope that reason and temperance will somehow triumph over savagery. Like the world’s worst poker players, they’ve resolved not to check, bet, raise, or call—all they can do, all they do time and again, is fold.

It doesn’t take an intelligence analyst—or even much intelligence—to see what happens next: Terror will continue, Western societies will fragment, and the lunatic right will get angrier and angrier, eventually producing paramilitary groups engaged in violent harassment of Muslims and immigrants, which, tragically, would only further reinforce the left’s feverish belief that any attempt to have a sensible conversation about security and immigration is basically an invitation to a pogrom. From that point on, only two paths remain available—extreme measures of social control to regain order, or another civil war.

All of this is rather plain and obvious to anyone paying attention to facts. All of this is frightening. But it’s not an invitation to depression—it’s a call to action.

Somewhere in this rubble, somewhere amid the two spectacularly undeserving candidates for the office of president, is a call for a new kind of politics. And it should begin with those of us who are most vulnerable—Jews and Hispanics, blacks and Asians, immigrants and minorities who look at the farce of American politics and realize that they’re first in any future line of fire. That’s a mighty powerful motivation to band together, much more convincing than the fetid flags of identity politics that call for posturing and nothing more and produce no results save for more acrimony and further violence. Imagine the following scenario, no longer unthinkable: Tired of right-wing loons portraying them as rapists or animals or blood-sucking vampires who control the money and the media, wary of left-wing boobs who advocate inaction in the face of mounting destruction, America’s minorities come together and form some sort of political entity, either under the roof of an existing political organization or in a brand new one. They refuse to believe, like the odious Newt Gingrich, that all religious Muslims are suspect. They refuse to believe, like the delusional Barack Obama, that radical Islamism is never the answer. They’re sane, and they’re vulnerable, and being both they demand reasonable policies.

And such policies, it turns out, are more readily available than we’d been led to believe. They involve crushing ISIS on the battlefield, even at the cost of committing greater resources to this now-inevitable war. They involve standing up to despots like Putin, who have an interest in further destabilizing Western democracies. And they involve holding everyone—allies and enemies alike—to the same standard we use for ourselves, refusing to accept bigotry whether it wears a turban or a small elephant pin on its lapel. The specifics are negotiable and the realities are complex, but the fight is as just as it is necessary. The alternative is surrender, the most un-American course of all.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.