This first appeared in The Havok Journal on December 28, 2016. The topic discussed remains just as relevant today.
Perverting the old writing maxim about “writing what you know,” American jihadism has embraced a strategy of “Kill What You Know” (as dubbed by our J.E. McCollough). Unlike planning strikes against Times Square, the Capitol Building or Cowboy Stadium, the “kill what you know” strategy allows wannabe jihadists to marry their personal grudges and fanatical beliefs with first-hand knowledge of their target. (For the record, I prefer “kill what you know” to “hybrid” terror attacks, a term which seems to imply that maybe if their co-workers had been even nicer to them, there’s a chance Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik might have lacked the critical component necessary to begin the killing spree.)
In some respects, the San Bernardino attack is unique. Unlike anything since 9/11, it seems to have woken the American people up to the realities of homegrown radicalization, Daesh-inspired terror and the dangers of pursuing a lackadaisical war against it.
In many other respects, the San Bernardino killings are, sadly, not unique. “Kill what you know” has already reared its head in places like UC-Merced, Fort Hood, and Oklahoma. And why wouldn’t it? By targeting smaller, softer, unpredictable targets, KWYK has been far more successful than any attempt to strike on a “big stage.” It is the perfect strategy for the “think global, act local” jihadist. The question is why haven’t we clued into KWYK earlier? Why didn’t we detect pre-incident indicators in San Bernardino?
We’re still unspooling some specific reasons why red flags were missed. What is no longer a mystery is that living in the opacity of political correctness leads us to one horrible surprise after another.
Remember when political correctness was simply a joke? When the worst you could say about political correctness was that you had to cut short your meeting with that new distributor in order to attend the company’s new, mandatory sexual harassment briefing?
That was before political correctness underwent mission creep. Deviating from a more noble quest to smooth out the rough edges of day-to-day living, political correctness filtered into our life-and-death decision-making, prompting fits of self-imposed blindness and a foreign policy as visionary as a flamingo in a sandbox. “See something, say something” gradually morphed into “Who are you going to believe, The New York Times or your lying eyes?”
When Abraham Lincoln worried about Confederate spies, he suspended the writ of habeus corpus. When FDR couldn’t determine who was a Japanese spy and who wasn’t, he set up internment camps. (Both presidents recognized that America’s balance between security and freedom was not set on a fixed point but, rather, on an adjustable one; the country could tolerate shifts in one direction or another, if threats warranted it.) Thankfully, we have been infinitely more sophisticated in our approach to the War on Terror. We avoided legal complications by using Guantanamo Bay for terrorists caught on foreign battlefields. We made sure not to exploit Iraq or Afghanistan for our own gain while occupying ground there. Domestically, far from indulging in mass outrage or pogroms against Muslims, we’ve gone the extra mile to ensure that not all American Muslims are tarred by the actions of the radicalized few.
Yet, fueled by political correctness, we allowed ourselves to wallow in self-flagellation and self-loathing. We fretted that Gitmo prisoners hadn’t received Constitutional protections. We cringed that the NYPD might covertly monitor mosques suspected of radicalization. We were outraged that the NSA dared to track suspicious email activity or collect cellphone data records. Then we blamed a teacher for overreacting when a Muslim boy showed her a clock that “looks like a bomb” (because, you know, school violence never happens).
And so our War on Terror devolved into a navel-gazing exercise on profiling. “See something, say something” was deemed too binary, too cut-and-dry and we were too suspect a people to be trusted with its implementation; not when people’s feelings could be hurt. In the case of Nidal Hassan, fellow soldiers disregarded his speeches in praise of suicide bombers or against the US because they didn’t want to be culturally insensitive. In the case of the San Bernardino killers, their neighbors similarly failed to alert authorities to the suspicious activity going on in their home — which so happened to be bomb-making —because, you know, Islamophobia.
And after the attacks occurred, we were desperate to find any excuse other than terrorism. Fort Hood was workplace violence caused by the first-ever case of “PRE-traumatic stress disorder.” A beheading in Oklahoma was a case of a workplace argument gone wrong. Chattanooga’s shooting of a Naval Reserve center was simply about depression.
Political correctness at all costs is an injustice that stings us all — especially good, patriotic Muslim Americans. A failure to speak clearly and specifically about terrorism leads to paranoia and irrationality. In other words, it leads to Donald Trump. If Barack Obama’s election was a reaction to George W. Bush, is it unreasonable to think that only because of the current administration’s mealy-mouthed approach to terrorism do Trump’s clownish, populist antics gain any momentum?
Here’s to hoping that the events in San Bernardino jar us permanently from our tortured, politically correct neuroses. Sadly, some Americans may not jar easily.
There are those who ask if the jihadists aren’t just like us, the flip side of the same coin? The assumption being that good and evil are merely subjective, a product of one’s own socio-cultural upbringing, so who are we to judge?
This is very fashionable pablum and very erudite nonsense, but, in a time when figures like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky still cast a wide net of influence, our history is worth defending. We are not like jihadists, nor were our Minutemen, nor are our current soldiers. Of course, we are horrified when our own failures or mistakes warrant them (we are an un-Putin-like people; we do not attempt to whitewash our history). Yet, as violent as some American revolutionaries got, they never beheaded people, much less uninvolved parties, en masse. Our country rightly blushes in shame over the My Lai massacre or Abu Ghraib or the Andersonville Prison — yet, Daesh does far worse, and repeatedly so, with glee.
Since Vietnam, our enemies have known that the path to defeating the U.S. is through defeating our public opinion. In asymmetric warfare, the psychological component of the battlefield is crucial. Sowing confusion, conflicted emotions and self-doubt are linchpins of our enemies’ success. They whisper in our ear that if we are less than perfect we are as good as evil; false reasoning on any number of levels, and most especially when considering the source — be it Wikileaks, RT or CAIR. Our confusion is their goal and our self-flagellating political correctness is their weapon.
After San Bernardino, we should know better than to willfully blur right and wrong, to embrace the opaqueness that comes with morally equating our country’s values with those of our enemies.
Whether literally or figuratively, don’t let anyone kill what you know.
Chris writes regularly at The Havok Journal in addition to hosting The Weekly Havok podcast. He is a former nightclub bouncer, firefighter, corporate security trainer, and prison chaplain. He has done stand-up, been homeless for extended periods of time, had screenplays optioned, and gotten married. He was also in the military and spent 33 months in foreign combat zones, earning a Bronze Star in Afghanistan. He has written one book, edited another, and is working on a third. He can be reached at Savage Wonder.