At the beginning of the United States’ involvement in World War II, FDR made a request that Allied bombing in Europe be limited to “military targets” to minimize civilian casualties and damage to religious, cultural, and historical landmarks. By the end of the war, however, all bets were off; and the surgical strikes that characterized bombings at the beginning of the war had given way to area-wide attacks that collectively killed hundreds of thousands of non-combatants by the war’s end.
The War on Terror has thus far been characterized by an attempt — not always successful — to similarly limit non-combatant casualties. We are frequently reminded that the vast majority of Muslims are not extremists nor terrorists, which I have no doubt is true. Those of us who have close friends who are Muslim also know that in truth, the terrorists can’t even rightly be called Muslims. Their motives are political, not religious; and using Islam to justify their acts is a gross distortion and bastardization of the faith that infuriates devout Muslims even more than it does the rest of us.
Accordingly, political and military policies regarding the War on Terror have thus far been guided by the noble principle of avoiding collateral damage, including non-combatant casualties, as much as is humanly possible. Even during and after attacks, we are reminded by politicians, generals, and journalists that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, and that those who are are despised even within Islam itself.
These reminders of the obvious are intended to discourage retaliatory violence against law-abiding Muslims, as well as to justify the at best marginally-effective surgical nature of the military side of the War on Terror. We don’t want to kill a hundred good and decent Muslims to take out half a dozen terrorists, after all. The majority of Muslims are good people.
While having no doubts whatsoever that that’s true — I count Muslims among my oldest, dearest, and most-trusted friends — I can’t help but wonder how long that fact will matter to people whose patience with Islamist terror attacks ran out a long time ago. I worry that the day is rapidly approaching when non-Muslims will continue to believe that the vast majority of Muslims are good and decent people, but will no longer care. Frustration with those who delight in attacking and killing civilians in the name of Islam will displace the human decency behind the desire to avoid collateral damage and the unfair and systemic pariahization of an entire people; and as was the case by the end of World War II, all bets will be off.
I think we’re actually closer to that point than most people realize. President Donald Trump was elected at least partially because he advocated what was then known as a “Muslim ban,” and which the courts have recently confirmed as such based partly upon the language that Candidate Trump used during the election. Although the proposed policy has drawn criticism from the Left and even from some on the Right, it’s clear that a whole lot of common citizens favor it.
Without commenting on the specifics of the proposal and whether it is justified in its present form, the fact that so many citizens of such a heterogeneous nation as our own favor the complete exclusion of people of a particular faith is telling. It speaks of frustration with a small offshoot of that faith for their abhorrent acts that has grown to the point that many Americans no longer care about the rights of the vast majority of Muslims, much less the contributions that they make to American society every day.
There also are scattered groups who are advocating the use of the “neutron bomb” — a now-abandoned, 1970s-era device that (at the risk of oversimplifying) kills people while largely sparing infrastructure — against areas in the Middle East that are known to contain pockets of radicalization such as terrorist recruiting and training camps. To those who advocate the use of the neutron bomb, the loss of perhaps tens of thousands of innocent Muslims’ lives is acceptable collateral damage if it results in the deaths of scattered handfuls of terrorists dwelling among them.
Aside from the obvious moral implications of the “Nuke ’em all and let God sort ’em out” school of thought, the problem with both travel bans and neutron bombs is that the seats of radical Islam are no longer confined to clandestine camps out in the deserts of the Middle East. Radical Islam is everywhere and in all nations — especially those that are targets of attacks. If we are going to defeat it, we need the help of ordinary Muslims who are even more appalled by the acts of terrorists than the rest of us are.
I am told that a great many leads about radicalized Muslims who are contemplating or planning terror attacks do in fact come from within the Muslim community. But if anger and frustration against terror committed in the name of Allah grows to the point that all Muslims become pariahs, I suspect that that information pipeline will slow to a trickle; so in addition to stigmatizing a faith whose adherents are overwhelmingly good, moral, and decent human beings, we will be endangering the flow of intelligence from that community that helps us to stop most attacks while they’re still in the planning stages.
In formulating policies to deal with the problem of radical Islamic terror, we therefore need to remember that the majority of Muslims are not only good and decent people, but are also our most important allies in fighting terror committed in the name of Islam. Even if common decency weren’t enough of a reason to not alienate and stigmatize mainstream Muslims, their critical importance as allies in the War on Terror should be.