Michael B. Mukasey was U.S. attorney general from 2007 to 2009 and a U.S. district judge from 1988 to 2006. Jamil N. Jaffer is a former associate counsel to President George W. Bush.
Omar Mateen may have acted alone, but, sadly, his is not an isolated case. The carnage in Orlando, like that in San Bernardino, Brussels and Paris, offers three specific lessons for policymakers willing to learn from these tragic events.
The first is that we cannot afford to disarm unilaterally in this war by limiting the legal authorities used by our law enforcement and intelligence professionals to identify and apprehend these killers before they strike. Here in the United States, we have made just that mistake. In the aftermath of the illegal disclosures of classified information by Edward Snowden, a bipartisan coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans joined with President Obama to limit the collection of telephone and Internet metadata that disclosed no content but offered a way to determine whether suspected terrorists were communicating with people in the United States.
Meanwhile, the president unilaterally conferred on foreigners located overseas certain protections once available only to U.S. citizens and green-card holders. Worse still, U.S. companies, feeling burned by the Snowden disclosures, limited their compliance with government requests to the minimum required by law and made it harder for the government to obtain even legally authorized access to customer information. In the current environment, we should insist that U.S. companies and the government find a way to work together.
The second lesson is that we are safer when we take the fight to the terrorists overseas, instead of waiting until they attack us at home. This is true whether the attacks at home are undertaken by trained operatives, as in the cases of Paris and Brussels, or by those radicalized at home, as in the cases of San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando. People such as Mateen take inspiration from two sources: a radical interpretation of Islam and the apparent success of terrorists at home and abroad.
Putting al-Qaeda on the run after 9/11 made it harder for that group to plot attacks and to maintain a steady recruiting and incitement pipeline. It also made al-Qaeda a less attractive focus for potential adherents in the West who sought to attach themselves to what looked like a successful movement — the wave of the future. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a resurgence in al-Qaeda activity where we’ve been less effective at combating it, from Africa to certain parts of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.
More troublesome, the Obama administration’s decision to take only limited action against the Islamic State has given that group more room to recruit, plot and incite others to violence, and to boast on the Internet of its success. This hold-and-poke policy has given the Islamic State the location, capital and cachet that is at the heart of the new radicalism manifesting itself here.
The third lesson is that no measures that may stoke emotions but are ultimately ineffectual — such as race- or religion-baiting, closing our borders to certain religious minorities or national groups, or building massive walls to be paid for in some mythical way by a foreign government — are likely to have a measurable impact on the ability of terrorists to operate against us at home. Nor will the unwillingness of the president, or the obvious reluctance of his former secretary of state, to describe the problem for what it is — radical Islamic terrorism — help us.
In particular, the president’s hectoring speech was no help, with his try for rhetorical jujitsu by asking what good it would do simply to call the problem “radical Islam.” The point is not simply to call the problem by its right name, but also then to do something about it such as developing links with reform-minded and mainstream, moderate Muslims, rather than arguing about phraseology while simultaneously mocking the seriousness of those who dare question the administration’s failed Islamic State policy. Unfortunately, this White House too often reaches out to apologists who have seized the microphone and worries too much about optics instead of focusing on substance.
In sum, neither of the major U.S. presidential candidates today nor the current president, in their respective responses to the Orlando attack, offer any hope that they truly know how to confront this very real and growing threat.
There are solutions to this serious problem, but they require concerted leadership and a commitment to action. Sadly, that does not appear to be in the offing. In one camp we hear platitudes and a continuation of the past seven years of failed policies. In the other, we hear religion-baiting and half-baked, unworkable policies that make no sense and fail to address the problem. Unless both political parties and their candidates get serious, the freest and most powerful nation on Earth will squander its moral and material advantages, and put us all at grave risk.
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