In the early days of the American revolution, Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The Islamist attacks in Brussels last Tuesday reminded us that these are always the times that try men’s (and women’s) souls.
Despite security efforts—additional arrests have been made since Tuesday—some terrorists slip through the net. U.S. security has been effective but hardly foolproof. European security lags, particularly regarding sharing information. But Europe is also challenged by large Muslim communities—most isolated from national cultures—which spawn and serve as havens for discontents.
How to prevent further attacks? The movie Eye in the Sky ponders moral limits on our use of force. Helen Mirren plays a British colonel commanding a multi-national force seeking to capture or kill members of the Islamist al Shabaab in East Africa. All Western military personnel work from home bases. A crew outside Las Vegas operates a drone—an eye in the sky. Hovering above a Kenyan house, it sends back images of wanted British and American Islamists. Small optical devices put in place by a local operative reveal the house to be the staging ground for imminent suicide bombings.
I give nothing away when I write that the “eye” carries two Hellfire missiles. But launching risks killing innocent people. The film offers a fairly even-handed debate about whether even a single “civilian” casualty is acceptable if a strike will eliminate the threat of attacks that may kill dozens of others.
As to Brussels, the attacks came only days after Belgian security forces captured Salah Abdeslam, wanted for participation in the November attacks in Paris. Belgian operations may have been flawed. “They’re way behind the ball and they’re paying a terrible price,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Better communication with Turkish security might have helped prevent the bombings. Regardless, Europe’s Schengen Area, 26 nations in which borders can be crossed without documents, may become the next casualty.
We in the U.S., particularly during election season, must face the reality that another attack can happen here. We must also decide how to use our security and military forces wisely. On Tuesday, Donald Trump again called for using torture in questioning Islamist suspects. Ted Cruz said that police should secure Muslim neighborhoods. He likened Islamist acts to gang crimes. But gangs commit crimes in their own neighborhoods. Jihadis don’t. What neighborhoods are police to secure? What does that even mean?
Fighting Islamism requires maintaining a level of humility and avoiding demagoguery while aggressively pursuing those who wish to harm us. Military action must be part of the mix. The Defense Department today announced the killing of ISIS’ finance minister. That’s good. But as defense secretary Ashton Carter advised, leaders can be replaced.
According to Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at London’s Royal United Services Institute, “There is a realization that this is not a war you can bomb or shoot your way out of, but you have to deal with individuals who are radicalized at home, to examine the reasons that they are exploring this other identity.”
So once again our souls confront a world in which violence or its threat remains a constant. Our greatest challenge may be protecting our values along with our security.
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