After California shooting, will Americans let fear prevail?

Barack Obama says the US is entering a "new phase" of the terrorist threat. But Americans are unlikely to heed his call to be "strong and smart" in fighting the Islamic State group, writes FRANCE 24’s International Affairs Editor, Douglas Herbert.


Whenever Americans have succumbed to fear throughout their freedom-fighting history, bad things have generally happened. At times, very bad things.

Two names personify just how bad: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

They were the Italian-born American anarchists wrongly tried for murder in the US in 1921, at the height of the Communist-lurking-in-every-corner ‘Red Scare’. Despite a worldwide campaign in support of their innocence, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted and executed by electric chair in August 1927 – triggering riots in Paris, London and elsewhere. It has gone down as one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in US history. A miscarriage driven by paranoia and raw fear.

In the wake of last week’s shootings in San Bernardino, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti is a cautionary tale as to why Americans would be wise to heed Obama’s plea to respond to the threat not by demonizing Muslims, but by waging a “strong and smart” fight against the Islamic State group.

“Our success won’t depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values or giving in to fear,” Obama said in a rare Oval Office address to his compatriots on Sunday night. “That’s what groups like ISIL are hoping for.” He added, “We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam."

A growing backlash

Yet there are already signs that some Americans are doing just that. Muslims in the US have reported a wave of death threats, assaults and vandalism on a level unlike anything they’ve experienced since 9/11.

The undetected attackers struck at a very soft target: a health care facility for the developmentally disabled. Officials describe the suspects as a couple motivated by extremist jihadist ideology, but – and here’s the catch – probably not directed by any particular jihadist group. In other words, they were inspired and acted on their own.

And that’s precisely what has kindled a new sense of vulnerability among many Americans who may have thought that homegrown jihadist terror was mostly a European phenomenon.

The backlash is being abetted by opportunistic politicians – in both parties. But it’s been especially fierce in the Republican camp. Donald Trump, for instance, has called on Muslims to spy on their neighbours.

The new racism?

Some Muslims say they believe Islamophobia is becoming an accepted form of racism in America – and surveys tend to support that contention.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center showed that since the 9/11 attacks, a growing number of Americans are likely to believe that Islam encourages violence more than other religions. In March 2002, 25 percent of Americans held that view, according to Pew. The number had spiked to 50 percent by September 2014.

The reality, as borne out by official statistics, suggests a much more nuanced situation.

As the New York Times reported in late June, the number of Americans killed by people motivated by extremist jihadist ideology since 9/11 – 45 – is roughly equal to that killed by (non-Muslim) White Supremacists or others embracing a far-right extremist agenda – 48.

High-stakes campaign

In the coming days and weeks, we can expect a growing clamor for tough measures and heightened vigilance, against the backdrop of a presidential campaign in which the stakes seem greater than ever.

Republicans will be inveighing on Obama to dispatch troops to Syria, while ramping up the crackdown against people seen as unsavory characters on US soil.

All the while, we will hear the same voices on the campaign trail rejecting – vociferously – any efforts to make the guns, even assault-style weapons of the deadliest variety, less available to anyone who wants to get their hands on them.

No one, including Obama, is denying the need to fight the threat from jihadist extremists wherever they may lurk.

But the real war Americans face is the war against fear, a war against the knee-jerk instinct to lash out against perceived enemies everywhere.

If that happens, rather than being “strong and smart”, America will end up looking weak and stupid – and inviting the very terror it seeks to thwart.

This article was originally published on December 7, 2015.

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