“Groups like ISIL,” Obama said, using a different name for the group, “can’t destroy us, they can’t defeat us. … They’re not an existential threat to us.”
In the strictest sense of the word “existential,” Obama was correct. It is almost unfathomable that the would-be caliphate could engage the United States militarily, defeat us and take control over our territory. But Americans have always thought of ourselves as the sum of more than blood and soil. Subscribe to what it means to be an American, and you can be one of us.
So what if, instead of killing us all, these Islamic radicals are merely trying to kill some of the long-essential elements of what it means to be Americans? Wouldn’t that be an “existential threat” of a different kind?
One needed only to peek at social media Sunday as word got out about the atrocity in Orlando — at least 50 dead and dozens more wounded in a shooting at a gay nightclub — to see what I’m talking about. As is by now numbingly predictable, the discussion quickly turned from horror at what had happened to outrage about what people many miles from Orlando were for or against.
According to multiple reports, the killer, a 29-year-old man of Afghani descent, called 911 beforehand to “pledge allegiance to ISIS.” The FBI said agents investigated the man twice in recent years for ties to Islamic extremists. On Sunday afternoon, ISIS claimed responsibility.
Yet, to many of the pundits, politicians and private citizens who felt the need to respond instantly to the news, the “solutions” require us to curtail liberty, in ways they just happen to already support.
There were the likes of Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who quickly issued an 84-word statement that didn’t mention terrorism, but rather said “the Senate’s inaction on commonsense gun violence prevention makes it complicit in this public health crisis.” He wasn’t alone. Deeming certain murders — only those committed with firearms — a matter of “public health” is a new tactic to push gun-control measures that many Americans oppose as infringements on the Second Amendment, as is claiming senators have blood on their hands every time someone pulls a trigger.
From the opposite end of the spectrum, we got this tweet from Donald Trump, who famously called for a “temporary” ban on Muslims entering the United States:
There are, of course, many Americans who view a religious test on those entering the country as an affront to the First Amendment.
Debating which type of liberty to forgo, in the name of defeating an enemy that would eliminate all liberties, is dreadful enough. It is also futile, when we consider neither side is proposing measures that would actually have prevented these atrocities.
The “commonsense” background checks proposed in the Senate in 2013? They wouldn’t have mattered: The Orlando killer was vetted before buying his weapons, despite being on the FBI’s anti-terror radar.
Trump’s bid to block Muslims from entering the country? No dice there, either: The killer was an American citizen, and Trump has said his ban wouldn’t apply to citizens (though, as always with Trump, one suspects such assurances are subject to change).
There is no clearer of sign of terrorism at hand than the fact our response is to out-bid one another in changing our own character rather than attacking the actual enemy.
Obama almost acknowledged as much in his remarks in March. After the aforementioned comment about an “existential threat,” he said the “primary power” of ISIS, “in addition to killing innocent lives, is to strike fear in our societies, to disrupt our societies, so that the effect cascades from an explosion or an attack by a semi-automatic rifle.”
For a free people, that kind of fear, disruption and cascading effect is as existential as threats come.