Terror in America: Obama and Trump
I wrote this blog – or most of it – two days ago. But I didn’t, I couldn’t send it out. I did not like my conclusions. More importantly, the argument and evidence offered were only sketched rather than fully developed and properly supported. But, after all, this is only a blog and not an academic paper. So I invite readers to tell me I am wrong, to show me where I am wrong.
Clearly and unequivocally, Barack Obama’s greatest failure as president was in creating conditions which allowed Donald Trump to succeed him. Or is this assertion not so clear and unequivocal? Was Donald Trump elected through a confluence of external factors that had nothing to do with Obama – the FBI Director intervening in the election eleven days before most ballots would be cast with information that the FBI was investigating an additional trove of material that might (it never did) throw further light on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email address and unprotected server. Russian hacking into the Democratic Party communications and releasing the information to Wikileaks may have done the critical damage. After all, Trump won Wisconsin by only 22,000 votes, Michigan by only 10,700 votes of 4.8 million cast, .002%, two-tenths of one percentage point, of the ballots cast in that state. Trump won Pennsylvania by 49,000 votes out of 6 million, .008 or 8/10ths of one percentage point. Poor Democratic party organization in those competitive states may have cost the election. Bur perhaps the loss also occurred because Obama had forged a role for himself right from the beginning as a president above the fray. Though he tried at the end, he clearly had difficulty in parting from his self-created image to pin the tail on the donkey. Perhaps this was because he was still blindfolded.
Look again at Obama’s farewell speech. What were the threats he pointed to as dangers to America? “A shrinking world, growing inequality; demographic change and the specter of terrorism — these forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy, as well.” But how does a shrinking world or demographic change threaten democracy? And why are they put on the same level as growing inequality and terrorism? And to what extent was terror a real threat? Further, if, under Obama, the trend to increased inequality had been reversed, why not point to that rather than “growing inequality?” “Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.” Rather abstract and indirect if Obama was referring to Trump as a fear-monger indifferent to core values Americans hold dear.
But look when he pivoted to specific types of examples in the next paragraph – put the fight against terrorism on a “firmer legal footing,” end torture, close Gitmo, reform laws governing surveillance, and protect privacy and civil liberties. These are all pretty remote from the concerns of most citizens. Does anyone believe that even one of these issues, let alone all five, mattered to a single one of Trump’s supporters? If Trump voters were afraid, it could possibly be from terrorists, but I will try to show that it was not and could not be. Nor was it a failure in due process or protecting terrorists from being tortured. Trump supporters could not care one whit about Gitmo, except perhaps what it costs to keep the few imprisoned there, if they only knew the actual costs. (In 2015, it was $445 million for the 41 prisoners still there, almost $11 million per prisoner.) In the election, they seemed more interested in their own fellow citizens being careless with information under their control than others looking at that information, including either their own government or a rival foreign power.
This is written with no criticisms of whether the goals Obama named are laudable. They clearly are for any small “l” liberal. But the implication of the remark is that Trump supporters were allowing their heroic leader to stir up fears that then trumped their concerns for individual liberty, freedom and respect for law. However, they were not primarily concerned with individual liberty, freedom and respect for law. And rather than terrorism being a major threat, it was not and was not even perceived to be a major threat. If it were, they could pay far more attention to home-grown terrorists, and, as we shall see, they were fully justified in largely ignoring that magnified threat.
Much more importantly and justifiably, they would be concerned with the scourge of gun violence that killed far more Americans than all the foreign wars in which America has been involved over the past eight years. From 2001 to 2014, over 440,000 people died from domestic gun violence in the U.S.A., almost 34,000 on average per year. In contrast, in the Afghanistan War, America lost 2,734 military personnel between 2008 and 2016, about 342 per year, or about 1% of those who died from gun violence in the U.S. In the Iraq War, there were only 591 deaths in those same 8 years, for Obama began withdrawing most American troops from there shortly after he took office. The death toll averaged 74 per year, or two-tenths of one percent who died from guns on American soil. In both operations, the death total has fallen dramatically during Obama’s second term.
I received the following feedback from my initial draft from a regular reader. “Again, those Americans for whom owning a weapon is sacrosanct do not look at deaths resulting from gun violence in an abstract way. If they are the ones shooting the bastard who dared to look at them the wrong way, then that is justice served, their way: the customary method of settling disputes. This is fierce individualism, protective macho gesture taking things in your own hand. You do not need no namby-pamby principles, just a secure hand and a functioning gun. They do not advocate for the right to bear firearms as a principle, but as a licence to take care of business, without the interference of government authority. Of course, sometimes they are the ones who get shot: then all hell breaks loose: individual particular self-interest, not universal principles guide the actions.”
I will come back to the figures above in a blog on foreign terrorism, but note who died. In 2015-2016, three Americans died assisting Iraqi domestic military forces in the fight against ISIL terrorism – 31-year-old Navy Seal Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Keating, 27-year-old Marine Staff Sergeant Louis Cardin on his fourth deployment overseas, and 39-year-old Army Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, who left four children fatherless; he was also on his fourth deployment and had earned 11 bronze stars. The cost in the lives of American military personnel overseas fighting terrorism has been relatively very small, but the sense of who they were has been very large.
In this blog, I will focus on the alleged threat of terrorism within the United States to democracy. Examine the list of major violent attacks within the United States when Obama was president:
- Binghamton, New York, 3 April 2009 on an immigration centre; 14 killed, 4 injured
- Fort Hood, Texas, 5 November 2009; attack on the Soldier Readiness Center there; thirteen were killed and 44 injured
- Tucson, Arizona, 8 January 2011. At a supermarket political meeting, Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others were severely injured and U.S. District Judge John Roll as well as five others were killed
- Aurora, Colorado, 20 July 2012; 12 killed and 58 injured in shooting attack at a movie theatre
- Newtown, Connecticut, 14 December 2012; elementary school shooting attack
- Boston Marathon, 15 April 2013; 3 killed and 264 injured by two bombs, and later, 1 police officer killed and 1 injured in the capture of the bomber
- Washington, D.C., 16 September 2013; at the Navy Yard – 13 killed & 3 injured
- Fort Hood again, 2 April 2014; 3 killed and 16 injured
- Las Vegas, Nevada 8 June 2014; 2 police and 1 civilian killed in shoot-out
- Chattanooga, Tennessee, 16 July 2015; 4 marines, 1 sailor, 1 policeman killed
- Roseburg, Oregon Community College, 1 October 2015; 9 killed & 9 injured
- San Bernardino, California, 2 December 2015; 14 killed and 21 injured
- Orlando, Florida, 12 June 2016; nightclub killing of 50 and 53 wounded
- Dallas, Texas, 7 July 2016; 5 police killed & 8 injured by a sniper
- Baton, Rouge, Louisiana, 17 July 2016; 3 police killed and 3 injured
- Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 8 January 2017; 5 killed, 6 injured.
These sixteen were major attacks classified as criminal, terrorist-Islamic, terrorist-right, or terrorist-left; 5 of the 16 fell into the classification, terrorist-Islam. But a closer examination of each of those cases raises serious doubts about the classification for at least one and probably three of them. In the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas attack on the Soldier Readiness Center, the perpetrator was Nidal Malik Hasan, a military psychiatrist identified over the previous decade as having serious psychological problems. In the last few years, he identified as a religious Muslim, but there was no connection ever discovered with radical Islamicist terrorism. Any reasonably objective analysis would conclude that this was a case of a criminal act by a deranged perpetrator who rationalized his action in terms of Islam, extremist Islam.
In contrast, the Boston marathon attack in April 2013 was a clear case of Islamic terrorism, though not carried out with any direct links to terrorist organizations, Islamic or otherwise. Dzhokha Tsarnaev was 9-years-old and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was 16-years-old when they immigrated from Eastern Europe to the U.S. They became self-radicalized Islamicist terrorists. In another case, that of the 2015 Chattanooga Tennessee attack and killing of military personnel, Muhammed Youssef Abdulaziz was born in Kuwait and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 6. His father was a Palestinian radical of the Hamas variety. Yet he too could be classified as a home-grown Islamicist terrorist without any known links to extremist groups abroad or domestically.
In the Chattanooga attack on military personnel in 2015, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez had substance abuse (sleeping pills, opioids, and painkillers) and alcohol problems. He was also suffering from depression and under his parent’s health insurance plan, was ineligible for treatment in a rehabilitation centre. He may also have been suffering from bipolar disorder. This was another case of an act of violence that took place under the banner of Islamicist terrorism that would be better classified as a criminal case of murder resulting from a deranged person.
The second deadliest attack during Barack Obama’s term took place in San Bernardino in 2015. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple, were the perpetrators. This was also a case of home-grown, self-radicalized Islamicist extremist terrorism, though inspired by foreign Islamicist terrorism, more specifically, ISIL which claimed them as “soldiers of the caliphate.”
The deadliest attack took place in Orlando, Florida on 12 June 2016. The devastation in that nightclub killing in which 49 were killed and another 53 injured, was caused by 29-year-old Omar Mateen. He was clearly a disturbed individual. He failed to become a state trooper and a prison guard and was working as a security guard. The psychologist who signed his papers permitting him to own a gun had never interviewed him directly and was fined for this lapse. Though his action, in his own words, was instigated by American airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, his history included a record of a number of threats to kill people that had nothing to do with religion.
In sum, only 2 of the 5 alleged Islamicist terror attacks and 2 of 16 terror attacks in general within the United States could be clearly and unequivocally classified as Islamicist terror actions. The three other cases were carried out by Muslims who claimed to be inspired by Islamic extremism, but were almost certainly cases more of mental derangement rather than religious ideology.
What are we to make of this analysis – that domestic Islamicist terror is not a real threat? Not at all. After all, none of the citations above refer to the number of alleged planned Islamicist terror attacks that were disrupted and prevented by the police and intelligence services or to those attacks in which there were only 1 or 2 casualties. However, even if account were taken of all those, the threat of domestic Islamic terror is not a significantly large problem. After all, two of the sixteen terror attacks were perpetrated allegedly by left wing terrorists and two by right wing terrorists, as many as the clearly and unequivocal Islamicist variety.
Domestic terror is not a serious threat within the United States. It does not compare in quantity to criminal terrorist incidents usually committed by people with serious psychological problems and certainly not anywhere comparable to the unique situation in America of thousands killed per year by gun violence having nothing to do with terrorism. Investing money in mental health facilities or monitoring of individuals buying guns would give far better safety and security results that the huge amounts invested in combating domestic Islamicist terrorism.
In any case, Donald Trump did not appeal to the fears of terrorism of his supporters, but to their hatred of terrorism and the religion that they felt deep-down endorsed or otherwise abetted that terrorism. Trump explicitly and repeatedly promised to “eradicate Islamic terrorism completely from the face of the earth.” Not Islamicist terrorism but Islamic terrorism! This is not an appeal to fear, but rather an appeal to the genocidal instincts we all harbour and, with the help of laws and institutions hopefully quell – to define a group as Other, as wholly other, as a threat, as a mortal threat, as a threat that the only way it can be dealt with is by extermination.
When Barack Obama reiterated that he was a liberal leader who defended liberal values, this only indicated how out of touch he was, how unsupportive the evidence was, of his position and the real danger. Packaging the threat in the language of threats to individual liberty is but a confession of the powerful forces of ultra blood and soil ethnic and religious nationalism, of demagogic populism, of a stress on strength and order rather than law and order. It is not as if Barack Obama does not know, did not know this, but that he was too circumspect in naming it and, in effect, talked beside the point. Barack Obama was perhaps not only personally guilty of mis-diagnosing the real problem in the hearts and minds of those in the street, but shared in the innocence and ignorance of those around the world who fought for liberal values in the Arab Spring, or marched in Iran, Turkey and Russia against militant dictatorships, and the women and men who filled the Washington Mall and streets around the world calling out for the protection of liberal values.
This is a war, a war being fought around the world, a war between liberalism and anti-liberalism. And the proponents of anti-liberalism are not afraid, are no longer intimidated, from defining themselves as non-liberal, as at war with liberalism and, therefore, at war with any other nation or religion that challenges their own sense of self-superiority. (Same reader commenting: “It is not so much that they are anti-liberal, but that they do not see any benefit from having liberal leaders, if they have no jobs. The liberals talk big, but the lives of the rustbelt denizens ain’t getting no better from that. Screw the principles and the slogans and give bread. And I do not think these people truly believe they are superior: they are painfully aware of their disenfranchised status amidst the grand speeches about equality. This much they understand: slogans do not feed hungry mouths. And anyhow, anyone who acts superior is in fact troubled by a whole lot of inferiority complexes. The aggression is just a protective mask.”) But until the stage of inter-nation war is reached, it is liberal values that must be struck down. Asserting that these fears are being stirred up and defending liberal values against that threat just misses the point totally. And if the women and men marching in Washington, marching in Los Angeles, marching in Toronto and marching in sixty or six hundred other cities around the world do not recognize their real enemy, then those liberals will be swept into the dustbin of history along with the defenders of a new liberal order in the Arab world, in Turkey, in Russia and in Iran.
The real threat is far, far greater than a threat to women’s rights and civil rights. The point is not to guard the values that make us who we are, but to go to war against the values who would make us something other than who we should aspire to be. An aggressive, not a defensive war was and is called for. And Obama still did not recognize this fact, or openly articulate it, when he left office. Defensive Maginot lines are one way to do battle, but such lines can always be breached by surprise and a blitzkrieg. The issue is not withdrawing from expanding democracy, defending human, women’s and LGBT rights, but fighting an aggressive war against ALL those who threaten the rights we already have won, terrorists of the left, right or Islamicist variety among them, but far more the citizens of America who do not fundamentally believe in democracy, do not fundamentally believe in rights, who believe in nation, who believe in strength and order rather than law and order, who believe a demogogic leader who will take them to the promised land where they supposedly once dwelt.
The fight against “extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism” may indeed be of a “piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalism,” but if you focus your guns and your ammunition primarily on those who would assault human liberties, then the main threat is given a wide-open birth. Trump does not just represent an alternative policy option in a pluralistic system of competing positions. Trump represents the enemy that sometimes comes in the guise of Islamicist terror, but far more dangerously under the banner of free speech and democratic liberties. This is the real fifth column. This is the real danger from within. And if we are too timid to brand that threat, to name it, to diagnose it and simply rise on our pillars of righteousness to defend civil liberties, we will have surrendered the field of battle to the enemy. And make no mistake – these are enemies. Aggressive war, not a defence of old standards, is required.
Barack Obama’s failure in this area is our failure. He articulates that failure best in his eloquent and inspiring words. They appeal to his allies because we share those same values and have become timid in warring on their behalf, if for the simple reason that wars so-called in defence of those values have been fought for quite different reasons inspired by radically different motives.
Obama was no Eisenhower leading the fight for democracy. Obama was not even a Harry S. Truman capable of firing General Douglas MacArthur. We needed a tough street fighter (and former haberdasher) more than a community organizer to do battle with the real enemy within that has now taken over the White House.
With the help of Alex Zisman
One reader wrote the following:
The media is simply not trustworthy. Most read no newspapers in America. If they did use media and relied on CNN, conservatives called them the Clinton News Network. Their bias was and still is outrageous. No problem for the conservatives. FOX feeds their own bias and outrates CNN three to one. Radio is a non-existent news source. CBC here was and still is horrendously over-the-top anti-Trump. Only one Canadian pundit of note, Conrad Black, had the timbre to go against the tide. Need I remind you of the so-called pollster blunders? It was the liberal media that created these misleading reports. Did they do it deliberately? How did they get it so wrong?… Many Americans see daily carnage in Syria and watch the horror of beheadings and mass suicide bombing and wonder when it will take place in their already troubled existence. Their own USA local news deals with the 15 minutes of overnight deaths by violence of their fellow citizens. Howard, in case you missed it, so does CBC News! Their lead morning reports deal with overnight deaths by stabbing and guns, every day! Our youth wonder if the music rave events they attend will see nightclub slaughters like those of France and Florida. You, like Obama now wish to downplay the fact that radical Islam is even a problem and rationalize such efforts by telling us more people die from domestic gun violence than from terrorism. That is simply two wrongs and no rights.