For several decades, thousands of Americans — some of them religious extremists, some ethnic supremacists and most believing that they have God on their side — have been traveling to the Middle East to fight in a foreign army notorious for committing war crimes and abusing human rights.
Americans are free to join the Israel Defense Forces so long as Israel does not declare war on the United States. There is no law that stands in the way of this kind of foreign military enrollment, even though some radicalized Americans who have followed this path went on to become terrorists.
Never is an American who moves to Israel, even one who illegally constructs a home on Palestinian land in the West Bank, referred to as a “potential terrorist” — that potentiality supposedly can only be found in Muslims.
The New York Times now reports:
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday implored more European countries to adopt American-style counterterrorism laws and tactics, including undercover stings to prevent potential terrorists from traveling to Syria.
Mr. Holder’s speech in Oslo amounted to a full-throated endorsement of America’s pre-emptive counterterrorism strategy, which began in earnest under President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. The F.B.I. has created elaborate ruses to ensnare people who express interest in joining terrorist groups or attacking America. That has led to a number of high-profile cases but has also attracted criticism that the United States is manufacturing terrorism cases and entrapping Muslims.
Prosecutors have also arrested people before they boarded international flights, charging them with providing support to terrorist groups. Such laws do not exist in every country.
“In the face of a threat so grave, we cannot afford to be passive,” Mr. Holder said in prepared remarks. “Rather, we need the benefit of investigative and prosecutorial tools that allow us to be pre-emptive in our approach to confronting this problem. If we wait for our nations’ citizens to travel to Syria or Iraq, to become radicalized, and to return home, it may be too late to adequately protect our national security.”
Try and unpack the meaning of the phrase become radicalized and some mangled reasoning quickly surfaces.
If the process of radicalization had not begun before an individual decided to abandon their home and travel to Syria or Iraq, does that mean that the U.S. or any other Western government should view, for instance, anyone who wants to go and work in a refugee camp in Syria as a potential terrorist?
On the other hand, if it is conceded that this mysterious psychological transformation called radicalization is determined not so much by where an individual is physically located as much as what they are influenced by and how they perceive those people they identify with as being under threat, then the premise of the geographically located terrorist breeding ground starts to fall apart.
In those cases where individuals have had the opportunity to explain their motives for turning towards extremism, the most common explanations are that it has been a response to witnessing the impunity with which Israel uses violence to subjugate the Palestinian people, or because they believe that the United States used 9/11 to launch a war on Islam. In other words, they became radicalized by watching the news — not by traveling to Syria or by participating in online jihadist forums.
Even during the era of McCarthyism when conservatives were whipping up anti-communist hysteria in America, the question posed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?”
If Eric Holder had been on that committee maybe they would have been asking: “Are you now, have you ever been, or might you ever become a member of the Communist Party of the United States?”
In truth, the U.S. government has no business nor skill in predicting the future and hunting for potential terrorists.
The growth of ISIS has been driven by its success on the battleground — not the failure of foreign governments to monitor their own citizens.
And the challenge ISIS presents will not be met by hoping it destroys itself.
More than anything else, Americans are victims of simplistic narratives — analysis all too often gets reduced to kindergarten language about “good guys” and “bad guys,” while reference to “moderates” and “extremists” passes for nuanced interpretation.
In large part this results from the fact that the actors on the ground are so rarely included in the discussion.
As a recent conversation on Britain’s Channel 4 News illustrates, however, it is possible to talk about what is happening in Syria and Iraq while acknowledging that despite the gruesome headlines, the participants in this conflict are by-and-large self-motivated, autonomous adults.