November 13, 2018

Worldwide terror: Connecting the ISIS dots

When it comes to fighting terrorism, we frequently miss the obvious, in two ways.

A few weeks before the September 11, 2001 attacks I was in Jerusalem, having dinner with Eli Borowski, an elderly Polish-born Jew with an amazing clarity about the past and the future.

As a young man Borowski had joined a French group to fight Hitler – even before World War II was declared. After the War he lived in Canada and acquired a world-class collection of antiquities. He then moved to Jerusalem to open a museum (The Bible Lands Museum) around his collection. 

I had never seen him so agitated.

“No one is connecting the dots!” he yelled. Battles in the Middle East, in Chechnya, and elsewhere, he said, were seen as isolated and separate fights. That was a dangerous mistake. The connective tissue, he said, were ideologies based on a distorted, radicalized Islam. We needed to see these fights in that larger context, he said, because they posed a broader danger to the world than any of the individual conflicts.

Eli, of course, was tragically correct, as not only the attacks of 9/11, but also the recent atrocities in Paris, Mali, Nigeria, Sinai, Beirut and elsewhere underscore.

I thought of Eli in the days after the Paris attacks, pondering whether the opposite of his observation is also true, and possibly more dangerous. What happens when we connect dots that aren’t there?

How is it that many governors and Republican candidates for president, post-Paris, call for rejecting Syrian refugees, and the creation of databases of Muslims and a religious test for refugees? All this because of a news report that one of the Paris attackers might have used a fake Syrian passport?

Consider the facts. Yes, the attackers were Muslim. And yes ISIS and others of its ilk would like nothing more than to attack America again. The probability is that they will.

But the Paris attackers were French and Belgian. Citizens of those countries can more easily come to the U.S. through a Visa Waiver program. None of the 9/11 attackers were refugees.

Becoming a refugee can take years, and only a small percentage of applicants are approved, after deep vetting. In fact, there have only been about 2,000 Syrian refugees allowed into the United States. No system is fail-safe, but is this really the route by which we’d expect ISIS to attack us?

Isn’t is more likely ISIS would try to recruit or inspire people already here (ISIS’ social media campaign is designed to recruit Americans to attack America), or get someone in through the Visa Waiver program? Trying to hide a sleeper among those seeking refugee status would take too long, and be less likely to work.

Second, we have reason to fear ISIS, but our concerns dim compared to many fleeing Syria, whose families, country, indeed their civilization have been brutalized by this group. Rather than telling them that they are not welcome, shouldn’t we be doing the opposite — seeing who among those fleeing political repression or religious persecution in Syria might be able to help us in our efforts? Certainly their knowledge of their homeland, and language skills, would benefit us.

When we feel under attack, it is inevitable that some will say we need to sacrifice rights to increase security. While we cannot give up our values or way of life (otherwise the terrorists win), sometimes accommodations are logical. Who today would complain that having to go through screening at an airport violates their Constitutional rights? Yet, we will never be made safer by reducing the rights of one group of Americans, alone. That’s called discrimination. If there are logical sacrifices to be made, all Americans should bear that burden.

In recent years, it is non-Muslim, white supremacists who have caused the most terrorist carnage in America. Some of these terrorists subscribe to theologies that distort Christianity to say that God hates an America that gives rights to non-whites. Why is it that we’re not asking for a registry of white males or Christians?

Our willingness to paint an entire community based on its extremists is directly correlated to how much of an “other” we view the group.

The irony is that when we stigmatize the Muslim community this way, we are likely helping ISIS recruit. America is based on the promise that, despite our differences, we aspire to a society where all of us can feel equally valued as citizens. ISIS’s message to young people is that Western values (democracy, equal rights, etc.) are sinful. A young person is more likely to be persuaded by ISIS if they perceive the idea of equality as a sham. 

The sad fact is that politicians wouldn’t make appeals to bigotry if they didn’t believe doing so would get them votes.

We all have to do a better job changing that reality, rejecting the exploitation of reasonable fears with appeals to our worst instincts to hate “others.”

And we have to make sure our policies are evidence-based, because otherwise the consequences can be stark.

When the Bush administration connected 9/11 to Saddam Hussein, and his non-existent weapons of mass destruction, we helped create the power vacuum in which ISIS developed, and Iran was strengthened (Iran had been held in check by a strong Iraq). Hussein was horrid, but ISIS is worse.

The damage done to our social fabric, our values, our institutions, our humanity – and our safety – by xenophobic political pandering, based on phantom, hate-inspired dots, may be even more devastating and enduring.

Kenneth S. Stern, Executive Director, Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation