Even though we’re suffering another outbreak of war fever, we should at least applaud President Obama for his refusal to hype ISIS as an imminent threat to the homeland.
Note this passage in his Wednesday night address. The italics are mine: “(ISIS) poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East – including American citizens, personnel, and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond region, including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, (ISIS) leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners – including Europeans and some Americans – have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”
How refreshing it was to hear that kind of calibration – as opposed to the rhetorical garbage we got in 2002 and 2003, when the George W. Bush team stoked hysteria about Saddam Hussein, tying him to the 9/11 plotters (he had no ties), and warning that his WMDs (he had no WMDs) could strike the American homeland. This hype prompted our invasion, which toppled Saddam and created the vacuum that sowed the seeds for ISIS. No amount of puppy-painting can ever erase Bush’s historic disgrace.
Whatever we may think about Obama’s ISIS strategy – I raised questions here yesterday – his attempt to put the ISIS threat in proper perspective seems eminently sensible. Basically, the message is: Yeah they’re bad guys and we need to stop them over there, but let’s not lose our minds over here.
We needed to hear that. A Pew Research poll says that two-thirds of Americans view ISIS as “a major threat” to the country, and an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll says that nearly half of Americans believe we’re more at risk of a major attack than we were prior to 9/11. Various pundits and officials have fed those fears – calling ISIS an “imminent threat to everything we have” (that was Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel) and claiming that, because of ISIS, “we’re in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation” (so said Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe).
Get a grip, folks. ISIS isn’t a Batman villain. It isn’t plotting to send fighters into suburban McMansions to shoot up the 60-inch Samsung in the midst of an Eagles game. ISIS is a cancer that must be extracted, but it isn’t al Qaeda on the cusp of 9/11. Daniel Benjamin, a longtime national security expert and former top counterterrorism adviser, tried this week to hose everyone down. He said the public dialogue about ISIS has been a “farce,” and that hyping the threat “in lurid terms” is “not justified.”
Benjamin said: “It’s hard to image a better indication of the ability of elected officials and TV talking heads to spin the public into a panic, with claims that the nation is honeycombed with sleeper cells, that operatives are streaming across the border into Texas, or that the group will soon be spraying Ebola virus on mass transit systems – all on the basis of no corroborated information.”
Some of the hype has been fed by rumors that Americans fighting for ISIS are poised to bring the war to these shores. Hagel originally put the number at 100. The conservative Washington Times put the number at 300. But now the Pentagon (correcting its own leader) says the number is around 12.
And even though we can all agree that 12 is 12 too many, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re in dire danger from that dirty dozen. Because we have the recent example of Somalia.
As terrorism expert Peter Bergen (author of one of the best books on Osama bin Laden) points out, nearly 30 Americans have fought with terrorists in Somalia – and most have either been killed, or they’re still fighting there, or they’ve been captured. Bergen says: “Americans should always be mindful of the threats posed by extremists. But as the case of U.S. citizens in Somalia suggests, Syria could very well end up being a graveyard for Americans fighting there, rather than a launch pad for attacks on the United States.”
Syria and Iraq could indeed be a graveyard, because ISIS has plenty on its plate already. In all likeihood, it’s too busy fighting over there to hit us big time over here.
Fareed Zakaria, who’s savvier about the region’s nuances than most of us, says: “While (ISIS) is much more sophisticated than al Qaeda in its operations and technology, it has one major, inherent weakness. Al Qaeda was an organization that was pan-Islamic, trying to appeal to all Muslims. This group is a distinctly sectarian (Sunnis-only) organization…(It) is anti-Shiite as well as deeply hostile to Kurds, Christians and many other inhabitants of the Middle East. This means that it has large numbers of foes in the region who will fight against it, not because the United States wants them to, but in their own interests.”
Here’s one other way to put things in perspective:
If ISIS was killing 1,500 American children a year, on our own soil, no doubt we’d be upset. Well, guess what: That’s the roughly number of kids who die each year from guns. And if ISIS was killing 31,000 Americans a year, on our own soil, no doubt we’d be freaked. But that’s the roughly number of people who die each year from guns.
And if ISIS was killing 36,000 Americans a year, no doubt we’d be panicked. But that’s the number of people who die each year in car accidents.
And if ISIS was killing more than 400,000 Americans a year, no doubt we’d be hysterical. Well, guess what: According to the Journal of Patient Safety, that’s roughly the number of people who die each year in American hospitals because of preventable medical errors.
So hey, it’s not worth getting too obsessive about ISIS. We’re far more likely to buy it for home-grown reasons.
Feel better yet?
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