The greater threat
It is a striking paradox that the nation’s political leadership goes into high gear to combat terrorism with origins overseas, but falls into a coma in response to carnage caused by Americans.
That is the unavoidable conclusion from events last week when the Boston Marathon bombs awakened fears that the nation had been attacked by an Islamist plot originating in Russia. Immediately, authorities were asking questions about the radical ideology of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and about his trip six months ago to the Russian regions of Chechnya and Dagestan.
These were important questions. We needed to know if an al-Qaida-inspired plot like the one of Sept. 11, 2001, had caused the carnage in Boston.
Fortunately, the tone set by leaders from President Obama on down was that we would not panic because of the Boston attack. And yet soon there were rumblings that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect, should be tried as an enemy combatant rather than as a defendant in criminal court. Again, the Obama administration insisted that Tsarnaev, an American, would be tried in an American court as hundreds of other terrorism defendants have been. To call him an enemy combatant would be to create an enemy in place of a criminal. The administration decided that we need not jettison the Constitution in a rush to confront a foreign bogeyman.
In fact, against the threat of foreign terrorism, the United States has amassed a vast security apparatus. The CIA and the military are spread around the globe to contain the threat of groups such as al-Qaida. It turns out the FBI had interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev at the request of the Russian government, which had questions about Tsarnaev’s contacts with radical Islamists in Russia. Ever alert for failures to detect a terrorism threat, members of Congress will be making inquiries about whether the FBI missed something it should have picked up on.
The fear of terrorism also touches on the debate about immigration reform. Members of Congress skeptical of immigration reform worry that we might make ourselves vulnerable to attack if we weaken border security. At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman, had to pound the gavel to quiet a heated exchange between two senators debating the question of whether the Boston bombings had a bearing on the immigration issue.
As serious as the attack in Boston was, the memory is still fresh of the massacre a few months before when 20 children were murdered in Newtown, Conn. But rather than leaping into action to protect us from attacks far more numerous and lethal than those caused by foreign terrorism, the U.S. Senate last week found itself paralyzed by Republican obstruction. Against foreign terrorism, we have a national security state. Against domestic murder, Republican senators (and a few Democrats) refuse to act. It’s worth asking why.
For one, foreign terrorism provides us someone to blame who is other than we ourselves. It’s easy to wage war on Arabs or Afghans or Chechens. But passing even a minimalist form of regulation designed to block the sale of guns to dangerous people here at home is a step too far for Republican senators. Confronting the violence in America requires us to confront violence committed by Americans. Certainly, Americans are far more likely to be killed by gun-toting fellow Americans than they are by Chechens with bombs. But against that tide of violence, the Senate found itself hobbled by a GOP minority.
In the wake of the Senate’s inability to break the minority stranglehold, Obama has come in for criticism for his inability or unwillingness to strong-arm a small group of Democrats to persuade them to end the Republican filibuster. Certainly, he is no Lyndon Johnson and never will be. It’s worth remembering, however, that it has been Republican unwillingness to act against the criminal violence committed by Americans that has left Americans vulnerable.