“A cancer that has no immediate cure” was not the most soothing metaphor President Obama could have chosen, but it was the most honest. He has no idea how to prevent another terrorist attack like the one in San Bernardino – and neither does anyone else, including his Republican critics.
The president used that somber phrase in his Oval Office address Sunday to describe what “many Americans are asking.” The answer was implicit: Yes, that is indeed what we face, and the cure for the disease will take time.
The specific actions Obama demanded from Congress are no-brainers. Yes, individuals on terrorism watch lists should be prohibited from buying guns. Yes, the sale of military-style assault rifles should be banned. Yes, there should be better screening of foreigners who enter the country without a visa.
But none of these measures would have stopped the barbaric assault in San Bernardino that killed 14 and injured 21. That’s no reason to reject the president’s initiatives – the steps he proposed might well stop some future attack or at least reduce the carnage – but it means we must all be realistic about the “new phase” of the terrorist threat that the president so soberly described.
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“As we’ve become better at preventing complex, multifaceted attacks like 9/11,” Obama said, “terrorists turned to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society.”
We saw this new pattern at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, when Army Maj. Nidal Hasan fatally shot 13 people and wounded 30 others; in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July of this year, when Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez killed five people at an Armed Forces Career Center and a U.S. Navy Reserve center; and last week in San Bernardino, when Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, raked a county health department Christmas party with gunfire before dying in a last-stand shootout with police.
There is no indication that any of these attacks was organized and directed by the Islamic State, al-Qaida or any known terrorist organization. Rather, they appear to be instances of do-it-yourself terrorism, inspired by events overseas but resulting from a process that authorities cannot reliably detect in advance: self-radicalization.
In a free society with more guns than people, there was no way to see any of these terrorist acts coming – any more than there was a way to know beforehand that a young white supremacist named Dylann Roof would allegedly show up at a prayer meeting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and kill nine innocent black worshipers.
The Republican candidates for president, obviously, have no answers. Marco Rubio scoffed that “I don’t hear anybody talking about bomb control,” noting that Farook and Malik apparently put together an arsenal of pipe bombs. But none of those devices was successfully detonated.
It’s hard to build a bomb, even harder to make it explode when and where you choose. The San Bernardino victims all died from gunshots; the assailants were armed with semiautomatic assault rifles that had been modified to make them more lethal.
So would common-sense gun control measures make a difference? I’ve argued repeatedly that they might, but let’s be realistic. There are so many guns already in circulation that anyone who wants one can get one.
California has an assault-weapons ban, theoretically, but there are loopholes that made the weapons used in San Bernardino – clearly military-style assault rifles – legal for sale and purchase.
What methods remain of possibly preventing attacks? Donald Trump wants increased surveillance of mosques, but aside from the constitutional questions about such action, there is no indication it would have made a difference in San Bernardino. The National Security Agency program to log all domestic phone calls – which ended last week – apparently failed, over the years, to uncover a single terrorist plot; reinstating it would be useless.
Tougher visa rules might conceivably have raised questions about Malik, who was born in Pakistan and got a visa to enter the United States as Farook’s fiancée. But Farook was an American citizen, born in Chicago.
The truth is that self-radicalization is by definition an interior process. It requires no telltale communications with known terrorist suspects and can take place with no outward signs of any change.
The existence of the Islamic State “caliphate” is obviously an inspiration to potential terrorists; if it were gone, presumably the threat would eventually subside.
Obama’s plan to “destroy” the group is cautious, slow and uncertain. But the one thing I haven’t heard from his critics is a better idea.
Eugene Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist. Email him at email@example.com.