By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
In the days since the massacre of 49 people and the wounding of hundreds more by an Islamist gunman at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, America’s political leadership has sounded more discordant than ever. Never mind the absence of a bipartisan consensus about what we should do; our politicians are engaged in unsightly squabbling about the nature of the problem itself.
In one corner, we have the Democratic Party, led by President Barack Obama, aggressively steering the national debate towards gun control. According to this camp’s account, there was this vague, slippery phenomenon known as “hatred” that prodded and pushed the febrile mind of gunman Omar Mateen, but what really matters is the fact that he legally purchased an assault rifle to carry out his bestial attack.
In the other corner, we have presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and his rainbow coalition of the angry, the cheated, and the merely racist. Listening to Trump again advocating for a ban on Muslims entering this country, one could easily picture the many Republicans who would gladly transfer to a parallel universe where a Marco Rubio or a Ted Cruz or even a Jeb Bush is leading their party’s response to the Orlando massacre. That they are stuck with Trump after eight years of the Obama administration tells you all you need to know about how the American conversation about national security has degenerated.
It can and should be recognized that there are many legitimate concerns bound up with the Orlando bloodbath: access to guns, immigration policy, the ugly persistence of homophobia, the vulnerability of soft targets like clubs and restaurants, the fetish for violence that is a feature of nearly all extremist ideologies and individual pathologies. But none of these particular aspects should divert us from appraising the root cause of all this—that is, Islamism.
Depressingly, this argument should be obvious, but it isn’t. Most Americans have known since 9/11 that Islamism, whether in its “constitutional” Muslim Brotherhood guise, or its Shi’a Iranian variant, or in the Sunni version that has spawned both al-Qaeda and Islamic State, is founded on the principle that coexistence with Western civilization and its values should be opposed at all costs. It is violently anti-Semitic, violently homophobic, and violently anti-democratic, and it cannot be anything else. These core precepts explain why Mateen was able to declare support for the Shi’a terrorist group Hezbollah as well as the Sunni Islamic State.
Yet everywhere this understanding of Islamism’s essence, reinforced by each attack, is compromised by parochial agendas. To listen to many Democrats, you’d think that Islamic State was just one of several extremist groups native to America, rather than a creation of the Middle East region (specifically, of the power vacuum in the region left by the Americans, and filled by the Russians and the Iranians.) That, of course, brings us neatly to matters like gun control, hate speech, bullying, and all the other progressive bugbears. Most importantly, it means we can avoid a discussion about our foreign policy and ignore the reality that Islamic State is a global phenomenon that has struck in Paris and Brussels as well as in Orlando.
Trump is no better. He, too, wants to present the Islamist threat as a domestic issue, with his solution involving a ban on Muslims entering the country instead of more restrictions on gun ownership. The corollary of this offensive, lazy, and downright stupid proposal is that we leave the policing of the Middle East to Russian dictator President Vladimir Putin, the one foreign leader idolized by Trump. That means, at least in the short term, the further empowerment of the Iranian regime and its Syrian puppet, President Bashar al-Assad.
Where would that leave the U.S.? That depends on who you think is better placed to manage and leverage the next evolutions in the Middle Eastern balance of power—a former KGB officer, or a reality TV star whose hair would fall out at the first crackle of gunfire. And if your answer is “Hillary Clinton,” I’m afraid that only generates another set of difficult questions, among them whether she can get tough with our enemies with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party breathing down her neck, and how she would sell a future foreign military engagement to the American public with the disastrous intervention in Libya on her record.
This is the reality that we must deal with: two presidential candidates—one compromised by her past record, the other a vulgar neophyte—competing for the votes of a deeply polarized nation. No longer do terrible events like the Orlando atrocity bring us together. To the contrary, they shine a blinding light on our political divisions.
In times of grief, it is natural to seek comfort. In the wake of Orlando, though, comfort is in scant supply. There are no soothing words to offer, nor is there much prospect of a positive change in policy on the horizon. All that is visible are the threats: more terrorist attacks here and in Europe, the collapse of the nuclear non-proliferation regime inside and outside the Middle East, the continued flow of refugees from Syria’s brutal civil war.
Most of all, our real enemies will multiply outside our borders while we obsess about the phantom enemies, from transgender celebrities to Muslim taxi drivers, within them.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).