After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
In the days after Paris Emily Dickinson’s poem kept ringing through my mind as I tried to figure out what I felt—and, surprisingly, didn’t feel. I did not, as the facts emerged and the story took its full size, feel surprised. Nor did I feel swept by emotion, as I had in the past. The sentimental tweeting of that great moment in “Casablanca” when they stand to sing “La Marseillaise” left me unmoved. I didn’t feel anger, really. I felt grave, as if something huge and terrible had shifted and come closer. Did you feel this too?
After the pain of previous terror incidents, from 9/11 straight through to Madrid 2004 (train bombings, 191 dead), London 2005 (suicide bombers, 52 dead) and Paris 10 months ago (shootings, 17 dead), the focus was always on the question: What will the leaders—the political and policy elite—think? This attack immediately carried a different question: What will the people think, Mr. and Mrs. Europe on the street, Mom and Pop watching in America? What are the thoughts and conclusions of normal people who are not blinkered by status, who can see things clear?
I feel certain that in the days after the attack people were thinking: This isn’t going to stop. These primitive, ferocious young men will not stop until we stop them. The question is how. That’s the only discussion.
Madrid and London took place during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and could be taken as responses to Western actions. The Charlie Hebdo massacre was in its way a story about radical Islamic antipathy to the rough Western culture of free speech. But last week’s Paris attack was different. It was about radical, violent Islam’s hatred of the West and desire to kill and terrorize its people. They will not be appeased; we won’t talk them out of it at a negotiating table or by pulling out of Iraq or staying out of Syria. They will have their caliphate, and they will hit Europe again, as they will surely hit us again, to get it.
So again, the only question: What to do?
On this issue the American president is, amazingly, barely relevant. The leaders and people of Europe and America will not be looking to him for wisdom, will, insight or resolve. No commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces can be wholly irrelevant, but to the extent one can be, Mr. Obama is. He has misjudged ISIS from the beginning—they were not, actually, the junior varsity—to the end. He claimed last week, to George Stephanopoulos, that ISIS has been “contained.” “I don’t think they’re gaining strength,” he said just before Paris blew.
After the attacks Mr. Obama went on TV, apparently to comfort us and remind us it’s OK, he’s in charge. He prattled on about violence being at odds with “universal values.” He proceeded as if unaware that there are no actually universal values, that right now the values of the West and radical Islam are clashing, violently, and we have to face it. The mainstream press saw right through him. At the news conference, CNN’s Jim Acosta referred to the “frustration” of “a lot of Americans,” who wonder: “Why can’t we take out these bastards?” The president sighed and talked down to him—to us. He has a strategy and it’s the right one and it’s sad you can’t see it.
Let him prattle on about climate change as the great threat of our time.
All he can do at this point is troll the GOP with the mischief of his refugee program. If he can’t work up a passion about radical Islamic violence, at least he can tie the Republicans in knots over whether they’re heartless bigots who want to prevent widows and children from taking refuge from the Syrian civil war.
This is a poor prioritizing of what faces us. The public is appropriately alarmed about exactly who we might be letting in. It would be easy, and commonsensical, to follow their prompting and pause the refugee program, figure out how to screen those seeking entrance more carefully, and let in only the peaceable. If that takes time, it takes time.
If Mr. Obama had wisdom as opposed to pride and a desire to smack around the GOP—a visit to Capitol Hill this week showed me he’s thinking a lot more about them than they are about him—he would recognize the refugee issue as a distraction from the most urgent priorities.
Those would include planning for and agreeing on how to deal with both the reality and the aftermath of a parade of possible horribles on which we should once again concentrate—anything from shootings in Times Square to suicide bombings in Washington to a biological device in, say, Greeley, Colo. It would include planning for any military activity that might likely follow such an event or events.
If what we are experiencing now results in an epic collision, are we ready?
Deeper attention now will go to candidates for the presidency. Hillary Clinton Thursday delivered a speech on her strategy to face the current crisis; it sounded a lot like Mr. Obama’s strategy, whatever that is.
But Paris should have impact on the Republican debate that has cropped up the past month about defense policy. It’s been approached as a question of spending. That may quickly come to look like the wrong approach.
Exactly what is needed now in terms of America’s defense, what is needed to deal with a possible parade of horribles? What might be needed down the road? There is a possible grim short term, and a possible grim long term. Who is thinking all this through? Are they getting the resources they need?
The Director of the FBI, James Comey, doesn’t feel he has the manpower to do what needs to be done to find and track bad guys.
What’s going on with intelligence, what’s their need?
There will be powerful public support now for spending—wisely, discerningly—whatever is needed for the short term, and a possible long term.
Finally, continued travels through the country show me that people continue to miss Ronald Reagan’s strength and certitude. In interviews and question-and-answer sessions, people often refer to Reagan’s “optimism.” That was his power, they say—he was optimistic.
No, I say, that wasn’t his power and isn’t what you miss. Reagan’s power was that he was confident. He was confident that whatever the problem—the economy, the Soviets, the million others—he could meet it, the American people could meet it, and our system could meet it. The people saw his confidence, and it allowed them to feel optimistic. And get the job done.
What people hunger for now from their leaders is an air of shown and felt confidence: I can do this. We can do it.
Who will provide that? Where will it come from? Isn’t it part of what we need in the next president?