The Truths About Terrorism, Whose Names They Dare Not Speak

The current conventional wisdom about terrorism, Islamism, and the Middle East is being bent -- but not broken -- by two events. On one hand, there is the Boston bombing; on the other hand, we see developments in Syria, and to a lesser extent, Egypt. What’s happening?

In the Middle East, the misbehavior of Islamist movements is becoming more apparent. In Egypt, there is the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, which -- shock! -- may actually intend to create a non-democratic Sharia state. Parallel behavior in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkey is underreported, but occasionally surfaces.

The most important single story at the moment, though, is Syria. Basically, the Obama administration has woken up and recognized what was readily apparent two years ago: they are helping to put radical, anti-American Islamists into power, and helping to provide them with advanced weapons which might be used for activities other than toppling Assad.

When the U.S. government wakes up, it nudges the media to get up also: what is quite startling is the extent to which the mass media is responsive to government policy -- at least this government’s policy.

I want to explain this carefully in order to be fair.

Take this article in the New York Times, which can be summarized as saying that Islamist rebels’ gains in Syria create a dilemma for the United States. This is an article about U.S. policy, so naturally it describes how that policy is changing.

Yet at the same time, one wants to ask: why haven’t the policy consequences of this situation been described continuously by the media in the past? If a big truck is headed straight at you on the highway, might not the media sitting in the front passenger seat shout out a warning? Does it have to wait for the driver to notice before speaking?

And even so, the diffidence is astonishing. It is good that the newspaper notices that the rebels are largely comprised of "political Islamists inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and others who want an Islamic-influenced legal code." But why, even now, can one get away with saying “Islamic-influenced”? For many years, they have made it clear that they seek a total Islamic (in their interpretation) state. It is the precise equivalent of describing Chinese Communists more than sixty years ago, as they approached victory in their country’s civil war, as “agrarian reformers.”

This story also parallels the much larger-scale debate about the Boston bombings. There’s a long piece in the New York Times about the Boston bombers; the lede gives the flavor of its argument:

It was a blow the immigrant boxer could not withstand: after capturing his second consecutive title as the Golden Gloves heavyweight champion of New England in 2010, Tamerlan Anzorovich Tsarnaev, 23, was barred from the national Tournament of Champions because he was not a United States citizen.

The title of the piece is “A Battered Dream, Then a Violent Path.” In other words, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was not allowed to win a boxing championship because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. Blocked by bad treatment from America, he became more Islamic and turned to terrorism.

Of course, it is vital to develop an accurate picture of the terrorists’ background and to explain the factors providing a personal motivation. On the other hand, it is something quite different to suggest that if the United States was nicer to Muslims and perhaps gave people citizenship more easily, there would not have been terrorism in Boston.

Why is this fundamentally dishonest premise being presented in most of the public debate? Because the voices enhanced by control over the most powerful microphones focus in on the political theme they want to push, excluding other factors in the context of their topic.

Where to begin? The article includes a photo of the future terrorist as a baby in Dagestan with his parents and his uncle. His uncle is wearing a Russian army uniform. Note: in the photo he is a baby, but Tamerlan Tsarnaev first entered the United States at age 16. Isn’t he more a product of Russian than of U.S. conditions? After all, his family was involved in a conflict against the Russian state; he and his brother were largely shaped by that environment and by the struggle there.

But the authors cannot focus on this issue. Why not? Well, obviously they want to blame America first, but also there is a big land mine there. Pointing out that immigrants -- legal or otherwise -- may bring with them hatred, grievances, and cultural formations inimical to America makes a point in the immigration debate which would be the exact opposite of what they want aired.