While he was a guest on Fox News’ Fox and Friends, Department of Homeland Security Chief John Kelly described the current safety of US citizens: "if [you] knew what I knew about terrorism, [you’d] never leave the house in the morning." Anywhere, any time, a terrorist attack can happen, according to Kelly.
His very job exists because of the September 11 attacks. The DHS is a bizarre umbrella of federal law enforcement which is there to protect Americans from immigrants, copyright violations, and cyber attacks, and very occasionally terrorists.
It’s probably correct that Kelly knows a great deal more about reported threats and potential terrorists attacks than you or I. His concern may be sincere. Being bombarded with whispered terrorist plans all day probably makes you particularly pessimistic about their likelihood of success. On the other hand, it’s difficult not to see his comments in the most cynical light possible, even if he isn’t laughing into his sleeve as he says them. Kelly continued, noting that terrorism is "everywhere. It’s constant. It’s nonstop. The good news for us in America is we have amazing people protecting us every day. But it can happen here almost anytime."
He’s correct that there are more decentralized strikes, making violence feel more possible in places outside of world centers such as New York City. In the years after September 11, savvy commenters argued that those attacks were a fluke. The subsequent successes in London and Madrid killed a few hundred people, and were also surprises. Mostly, the pre-ISIS days after 9/11 were chock full of terrorist attack failures via the shoe bomber or the Time Square bomber. Seemingly, the FBI was reduced to creating plots in order to stop them.
ISIS learned from Al-Qaeda and other groups’ mistakes. It got Internet savvy, and its followers have used simple methods of attack, often guns, so easily accessible in America. In Manchester, England, a suicide bomber detonated his IED outside of an Ariana Grande concert, killing 22 people and injuring 100. Instead of trying to get his IED into a stadium that undoubtedly had a certain level of security, the suspect disturbingly sensibly chose to detonate just as the crowd was leaving. For all the talk that critics of the war on terror engage in over the rarity of terrorism, these smaller, smarter attacks have a terrifying regularity to them that differs from the PTSD-inducing grandiosity of 9/11. How can you stop a shooting, or a homemade bomb attack, when you can’t even stop a mass hijacking?
Unfortunately, there may not be anything to do. Everyday homicides are often triggered by family upheaval, mental illness, job frustration. Especially when it comes to firearm homicides and suicides in the US, they are hard to predict, and impossible to stop entirely. UK has its own problems with knife crime, and now acid attacks. Even when you ban certain weapons, people will hurt each other. Even in a fiction-like dystopian society, random acts of violence could never be fully stamped out. There is no reason, then, to drive full speed ahead towards that surveillance or the war state in the hopes that it can save us from school shootings or from terrorist attacks. It cannot, and it will not. The only question is whether the US, Britain, and such countries are too far gone to ever come back from this war on terror mindset.
Attacks such as the one in Manchester do not happen in a vacuum. Libya was destroyed by the US and its allies, and to assume that that and a century’s worth of intervention and attack in the Middle East has nothing to do with some Muslim’s feeling towards the West is to suggest that terrorists are motivated by something inhuman. They behave inhumanely when they maim and kill innocent people, but they know why they do it, and they usually mention it.
Pointing out that terrorists have their own reasons to act never makes you popular. Then-Rep. Ron Paul learned this in a public clash with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani during the 2008 election. In spite of Giuliani’s well-applauded grandstanding respond, Paul continued repeating the lesson during the next decade to anyone who would listen, just as he had for years before 9/11. And the late writer Harry Browne wrote a beautiful, terrible piece on September 12, 2001 for Antiwar.com in which he related the long list of interventions and assaults the US had engaged in, and wondered if we’d ever learn from the violent responses to our wars and "police actions."
And yet, though "blowback" is a CIA-coined term, only radicals on the left, right, and libertarian sides admit that actions have consequences. The violence in Manchester will certainly provoke a reaction from Britain and its allies. Why do people argue for decades on end that the terrorist attacks themselves aren’t also a reaction?
British MP and head of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn took the rather daring risk of pointing this out so soon after a terrorist attack – putting him squarely in the Paul and Browne camps of risking respectability in order to speak truth.
Corbyn’s words were restrained and British, and assured listeners that the true blame for the killings lies with the terrorists themselves (which is correct). However, he said that the UK had to face that terrorists are motivated by wars in which his country has support or actively participated. Furthermore, "if we are to protect our people… we must be brave enough to to admit that the war on terror is not working."
Two unspeakable things were spoken by this high-profile politician: wars cause terrorism, and that the "something" that must be done about terrorism isn’t doing the job. The usual political response to terrorist attacks is to double down on nationalism and on security, perhaps on cries for more surveillance, or enhanced xenophobia towards immigrants. Naturally, Corbyn has been hit by criticism over his statement – even from Prime Minister Theresa May herself. The refrain is, even if one ever said such things, you know, this is not the time to say it.
Compare Corbyn to DHS head Kelly. Kelly was all cryptic comments and an attempt to stoke fear in US citizens. If you had his knowledge, you would be more scared, and by extension, you would undoubtedly trust the US government to decide its anti-terrorism stuff without your input or complaint.
Corbyn said plainly that the government is failing. Not “trust me, trust us, we’ll keep you safe," but that the government’s wars have made you less safe, and whatever we do next, it has to be different than this violent, circular tail-chase between the West and the Muslim world.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.