It’s premature to draw confident lessons from the recent terrorist atrocity in Orlando, but information from official sources strikes a somewhat discordant note in my mind. FBI Director Comey seems to be saying that there are very few radicalized Islamic terrorists in our midst, at least in proportion to our native Muslim population. Yet these are far too many to follow every lead intensively or to take action beyond what has been done. That implies two things. Our internal security services are overwhelmed and underfunded for the job we have assigned them, and their rules of engagement, which treat this as a criminal matter, preclude some possible preventive actions.
We don’t allow preventive detention. We disavow hard interrogation. We place no onus or responsibility on family members who almost certainly are aware of the situation. We act only on verifiable evidence that a crime has been committed, and that evidence must meet strong legal standards. Self-incrimination cannot be either forced or used. These are our values and we fervently wish to keep them. In fact, it isn’t too strong to express this belief by paraphrasing Patrick Henry’s famous declaration, “Give me all of my constitutional rights or give me death!” And that is where we seem to have taken a stand.
But consider this background information. The Orlando killer had openly expressed support for terrorist acts and associated groups in the Middle East. He had applauded with glee when his high school class was informed about the Twin Towers attack almost 15 years ago. His association with another Florida man, who was the first known American suicide bomber in Syria and who attended the same Mosque in Orlando, led to the first of three FBI investigations. Moreover his openly expressed support for ISIS so alarmed fellow employees at his work location that they reported this to authorities. These investigations clearly revealed his radical sympathies but there was no evidence of either a past or imminent crime. He made several trips to the Middle East, at least one of which had no obvious purpose. The other two were purportedly to attend the Hajj in Saudi Arabia. Regardless of all of this, he had dropped off the FBI radar. So, was he truly a needle in a haystack, or is it possible that there are so many who seem even more threatening that he is more like a needle in a large pile of needles?
It pains me to say this, but I suspect that incidents of this type will become commonplace. Its success will breed copycats even if ISIS plays no direct role other than applauding the perpetrator. Comey told a truth that no one is taking to its logical conclusion. We are intrinsically and probably permanently vulnerable. It won’t be like Iraq, but everyone will have to keep in mind that venturing anywhere in public will be about as dangerous as life often was in early 19th century America, particularly in the West. Of course, we survived these dangers and indeed prospered, so that is not a dire prediction. However, our lives will be changed in some uncomfortable ways.
One possible outcome will be serious infringements on our civil liberties in a probably vain attempt to defend ourselves. Another might be vigilantism, with the kind of armed populace that gets wild applause at Trump rallies. From the left I expect calls for far more restrictive gun and/or ammunition controls. While that might help at the margin, experience in the EU is discouraging. They have much stricter rules than us and yet that has hardly impeded the proliferation of terrorism. Frankly I see no happy solution. In the aftermath of the latest tragedy, as always, everyone is talking and speculating about this issue. But I see little evidence that either its seriousness or the limitations on our responses are recognized. I surmise that Director Comey and President Obama both do recognize this but feel that they can’t reveal it openly because they fear the consequences.