What is the difference between paranoia and fear? When it comes to ISIS, the New York Times and others seem to think that all fear is irrational.
In a stunningly naïve and short-sighted op-ed this week, the Times' Thomas Friedman leads with the declaration that he's afraid Obama's decision to re-enter Iraq is "being done in response to some deliberately exaggerated fears... and fear that ISIS is coming to a mall near you."
He goes on to quote Stratfor chairman George Friedman, who asks, "Is ISIS really a problem for the United States?"
Who Thought al-Qaeda Was a Threat?
The short answer is, "Yes." But perhaps a better answer is really a question: In 1998, when Director of National Intelligence George Tenet advised President Clinton that al-Qaeda was planning U.S. attacks, did anyone think al-Qaeda was a serious problem?
Apparently not, given the horrific 9/11 aftermath of that very short-sightedness. Messrs. Friedman and too many others like them seem to suffer from a malady credited to philosopher George Santayana: "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it." If we persist in downplaying the threat of ISIS to America, we become victims, not just of potential harm to ourselves and loved ones, but of our own stupidity.
This week, NBC News reported that messages on Arab language Internet sites called for attacks on Times Square and other high-profile U.S. areas. NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton responded, ""We are quite concerned, as you would expect, with the capabilities of ISIS, much more than al-Qaida."
Two weeks ago, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia cautioned that ISIS was coming for Europe in a month, and the U.S. in two months. While it's easy, and reasonable, to attribute Saudi Arabia's dire warning to a more cynical desire to further draw the U.S. into a fight that Saudi Arabia should be fighting itself, it's also a warning that shouldn't be taken lightly. As history continually teaches us, what starts as a regional conflict -- ISIS' declared intentions of a caliphate across the Levant -- very easily becomes an international crisis.
All Politics Is Personal
Keep in mind the lesson of al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda was initially formed in response to the 10-year Soviet presence in Afghanistan. It grew much more powerful, however, after Osama bin Laden became angry that Saudi Arabia rejected his offer to help protect that country from Sadaam Hussein. Bin Laden fled to Sudan and then Afghanistan, where he enjoyed the limitless protection of the Taliban, and grew increasingly angry not just at the personal Saudi slight against him, but at the continued American presence in "holy" Islamic lands. The inevitable result of this ignored, simmering power became, of course, 9/11.
Friedman also asks, "How did we start getting so afraid again so fast? Didn't we build a Department of Homeland Security?"
Would that be the same Department of Homeland Security that gave us "Fast and Furious," or the tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants pouring over our southern borders? Is it the same DHS that runs the Keystone Cops, aka the TSA, which does such a bang-up job (excuse the pun) at airport security that they had to fire or suspend 43 agents who failed to check carry-on bags for explosives? Or perhaps it's the same DHS that allowed Boston Bomber Tamerlan Tsarneav into the country, despite repeated warnings from Russian intelligence.
Fear Isn't the Same as Panic
Americans' fears of terrorism are legitimate and credible, not irrational or panic-driven. Critics like to throw around statistics that tout the low rate of terrorist attacks since 9/11, as though that proves that the jihadists have pretty much given up. On the contrary, the low rate of terrorism on U.S. soil is directly attributable to the very rational concerns and actions of our law enforcement agents in the FBI and police, who have worked diligently and successfully to thwart such attacks.
ISIS can be degraded and destroyed, but only if we all fight the urge to think, "Not our problem. It's only happening over there, far away."
As someone famously said, the world is flat, and things tend to move a whole lot faster on a flat surface. "Over there" is more frequently becoming "over here," and taking a deep breath and slowing down is bad advice when someone is rushing at you with the intent to kill.