Hard Sayings about Terror

A few days ago, the U.S. Embassy in Rome issued a “security message” for Americans to be cautious about visiting various sites in Italy, first among them “St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.” And both Italian and Vatican security forces have now set up far more serious checkpoints – even just to enter St. Peter’s Square – than the rather casual screening they did in the past. When the pope drove through the crowds there this week, the bodyguard detail was double the normal size. Let’s hope this is not just a passing reaction, but a profound realization of the new, if regrettable, moment in which the world now finds itself. And the nature and magnitude of the response it requires.

Pope Francis himself has several times spoken of attacks like the recent ones in Paris as part of a “piecemeal World War III.” He did so again the other day. He hasn’t elaborated further, and at times has introduced no little confusion about what, exactly, he means by suggesting that some unspecified “they” won’t admit to the reality of the new World War yet. (The Muslim world? The West? America?)

In the past, he has hinted that perhaps all sides are to blame – and that nations or individuals who sell arms in conflicted areas are damned to Hell (that was said directly, no hinting). But Francis also commented in particularly harsh terms, unusual for him when he’s speaking about adherents of another faith, about the perpetrators in Paris, “The path of violence and hatred cannot resolve the problems of humanity, and using the name of God to justify this path is blasphemy.”

Quite so. ISIS and the significant minority of Muslims who to a greater or lesser degree support their violent jihad against the West, however, will not be turned from mayhem by moral condemnation, but by a just application of force – force, as has always been taught in the just war tradition, that is properly used to eliminate implacable killers and to protect innocent lives. There is no negotiation, no “dialogue” with enemies of this sort: death is their message, and the only proportionate response it to refuse to take delivery and return to sender.

It would be heartening to see a vigorous “dialogue” here and with our European allies about how – not whether – to pursue that course, the kind of dialogue among people of common purpose, confident about the rightness of the cause, that we saw in the last World War about how to eliminate the evil of Nazism. The fight will take great prudence, so as not to get drawn into the kind of quagmire, military and ideological, that ISIS desires. That means swift, well targeted, overwhelming firepower and manpower, at the proper time and place, followed by the introduction of troops from our Muslim friends, to hold territory and keep remaining ISIS forces on the run for good.

ISIS on the move in Anbar Province, Iraq [AP]
ISIS on the move in Anbar Province, Iraq [AP]

Instead, what we have at the moment is, of all things, partisan bickering over refugees, a serious problem – to be sure – but a secondary one. Even the Administration says that vetting refugees using current standards takes somewhere close to two years. More seriously, our president doesn’t seem to feel any need to re-examine our course or any sense of urgency about the situation. In the meantime, America, Europe, Africa, the Far East, and the whole world are going to have multiple terror problems on their hands. Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq earlier this month. France last week, Mali this week. Who’s next?

We’re also frittering away energy trying to assign blame for such attacks in partisan terms. There’s plenty that we in the West have done badly or failed to do, which has affected this whole threat. But we should be clear about one thing: the terrorists are cold-blooded murderers and their apocalyptic violence has very little to do with Western actions and a whole lot to do with perverse currents in Islam.

Just a few historical reference points: We had the Iran hostage crisis under Carter (D), multiple attacks against American targets under Reagan (R), the first bombing of the World Trade Towers in 1993 under Clinton (D), 9/11 under Bush (R), and several “setbacks” under Obama (D).

If there’s any general lesson to be drawn from this history, it’s that Islamic terrorism is non-partisan. It’s an understandable human trait to want to think that: if only we leave them alone, or speak more nicely to them, or deny that their apocalyptic visions or political aspirations are unrelated to deeply held religious views, that these outrages will slowly melt away. And that eventually we can all go back to pretending that everyone in the world really aspires to our American metrosexual, urban (or suburban), secular, skeptical, digital, consumerist lifestyles.

It’s silly to think that we “created” such radicalism. We didn’t. Modernity in general generates reactions against its obvious corruptions and defects. Our multicultural universities, instead of obsessing over microaggresions or Islamo-, homo-, and other “phobias,” perhaps might help us better understand such reactions if they devoted some time to studying how they have emerged in other cultures, and in such murderous form. And from historical circumstances over which no one, not even an American president, has full control.

All of us need to be more engaged in thinking through what we can now do about them. Part of the solution is military, part a battle of ideas. Though let’s be brutally honest: Our influence on Muslim ideology is and will be quite limited.

In just a few weeks, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), Pope Francis will inaugurate the Jubilee Year of Mercy. It will draw millions of pilgrims to St. Peter’s and other holy sites around Europe. Tempting targets for killers who believe they are fighting “Crusader” forces. The new security around the Vatican and other sites is long overdue, a sad byproduct of our times. But the solution to the broader problem lies elsewhere, at the source. A hard saying, but true.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.