There was once a time when people were shocked by acts of religious terrorism, finding it difficult to reconcile a religious group with killing in the name of its religion/god (See sidebar for other notable acts of terrorism with religious ties). Now such acts have become so commonplace that, as shocking as they may be, they no longer surprise us - we expect them to occur - it's just a matter of where and when.
While there hasn't been a major act of terrorism in the United States compared to that of 9-11, we are not immune to such activity. As recently as April 2013 two admittedly "self-radicalized" Muslims set off bombs at the Boston Marathon. And even though we have experienced few such incidents in our nation, acts of terrorism are commonplace in other parts of the world.
For example, during the same year of the Boston Marathon bombing, the U.S State Department reported there were some 7,967 acts of terrorism, resulting in the deaths of 16,209 persons (an average death rate of 2.03 persons per event) and 28,488 wounded, carried out in nations with high Muslim populations. The following countries are included among those with the highest death rate:
- Iraq with 2,495 total attacks resulting in the deaths of 6,378 persons (2.56 per event)
- Afghanistan with 1,144 total attacks resulting in the deaths of 3,111 persons (2.72 per event)
- Syria with 212 total attacks resulting in the deaths of 1,074 persons (5.07 per event - highest kill rate among Middle Eastern nations)
Interestingly, only 20% of the Muslim population lives in the Middle East, yet over 72% of the deaths and injuries related to terrorist acts occur there. And while it can be debated as to whether or not those who order or carry out such acts are "truly" Muslims or represent "true" Islam, they are very vocal in their claims to be Muslims and to be representing and/or obeying the teachings of Islam.
Despite the fact that acts of terrorism are occurring somewhere in the Middle East practically every day, it is not until an attack occurs in the West, such as in Paris, that those in the West suddenly seem to remember that groups like this exist. This is especially strange considering that it has been only ten months since the last terrorist attack in Paris at the offices of the satirical newspaper
Charlie Hebdo. During the assault radical Islamists murdered eleven people.
After that attack the world again awoke to the dangers of Islamic terrorism and held demonstrations in support of the paper. These included a large rally attended by some forty world leaders who marched in support of the paper and the French people. Notably missing from the group was any ranking official from the U.S. - the administration opting to send the U.S. Ambassador to France.
Yet, here we are again. Typically, when such attacks occur, our response is to express great outrage with little action. Instead, we debate the issues - who are they, are they truly Muslims, is Islam a religion of terror, how should we best deal with such groups - should we put troops on the ground, just bomb them, arm other groups in the area and let them fight it out, etc. At some point the discussion even turns to the past, and we rehash the debate as to whether or not we should have gone into Iraq in the first place. Within a matter of weeks the debate ends. Little or no action is taken. All returns to "normal" as we go back to our lives and put this behind us - at least until the next attack is carried out on us or one of our allies in the West.
Despite the talk, Americans across all spectrums recognize an effective plan to actually get rid of the problem is never given serious discussion, much less implemented. Perhaps this is due to the long wars previously waged in the Middle East and the cost paid with the blood of our sons and daughters. In addition, many Americans believe our leaders have given up all that was gained by such great cost. As such, there isn't much of an appetite for another such war.
Perhaps due to the scope of this most recent attack in Paris, the current discussion might actually lead to some viable response. The French President is certainly taking it seriously when two days after the attacks he launched an air attack bombing Raqqa, the Syrian stronghold of ISIS. But will more action be taken and, if so, what will it look like?
Political figures and pundits alike are putting forth their opinions and these vary greatly. Here are just a few that indicate how diverse the opinions are and how far apart we are in reaching any agreed upon plan.
During a press conference on November 16, following the G20 Meeting, President Obama argued against adding "boots on the ground" and for continuing the administration's policy to maintain airstrikes stating, "As I listen to those who suggest something else needs to be done, typically the things they suggest need to be done are things that we are already doing. The one exception is that there had been a few who suggested that we should put large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground. And it is not just my view, but the view of my closest military and civilian advisers, that that would be a mistake."
His former Secretary of State and leading Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton seems to agree when stating at the recent Democratic debate, "It cannot be an American fight." The following day she clarified this further stating, "We have to be rallying our partners and allies, pulling countries off the sidelines."
Senator Rand Paul has repeatedly expressed a lack of interest in any involvement in the Middle East but regarding the President's policy has stated,
"I think if you're going to war, sending 50 people to war at a time is sort of a recipe for being surrounded and somehow having a disaster on their hands."
Not shying away from involvement, Presidential candidate Donald Trump has expressed,
"I would just bomb those suckers. That's right. I'd blow up the [oil] pipes," Trump said. "I'd blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left."
Using similarly strong language, former Senator Rick Santorum has stated,
"If these folks want to return to a 7th Century version of Islam, then let's load up our bombers and bomb them back to the 7th Century."
Carly Fiorina, another Republican Presidential candidate, seems to favor having a summit: "King Abdullah of Jordan has been asking for bombs and materiel. We have not provided them. He has gone to China. The Kurds have been asking us to arm them for three years. We haven't done so. The Egyptians have asked us to share intelligence. We're not doing it. We have Arab allies. They are not perfect. But they need to see leadership, support and resolve from the United States of America, and we can help them defeat ISIS."
Among those arguing for ground forces, Senator Ted Cruz said,
"We need boots on the ground, but they don't necessarily need to be American boots. The Kurds are our boots on the ground."
Senator Lindsey Graham takes it much farther as he believes, "It is just a matter of time that they will hit us or hit Europe if we don't go in on the ground in Syria." Graham has said there needs to be an American troop presence in the Middle East of as many as 20,000 U.S. ground troops and advisors in Iraq and Syria.
Bomb them, have a summit, arm and/or support ground forces from other countries, send in our own ground troops - all have been presented as options. Whether we do any or none of these, whether we stay the course or end up putting boots on the ground, what is missing from the debate is the effect it will have on our men and women who serve and their families. Where is the debate about how we can help those who have already served?
While we call for action to be taken in the Middle East, should we not also call for action to help those who have already fought the war against terrorism and fought the battle for freedom - be it in the Middle East, Vietnam, Korea, or the battlefields of Europe and Asia? Should we not also be discussing how we will care for our sons and daughters who will return from a war against ISIS? For we will pay a cost - freedom never comes without a price.
In addition to those who were physically injured, we have hundreds of thousands of combat veterans from previous wars that suffer the effects of PTSD and Moral Injury. Each day more than twenty-two of our veterans commit suicide. This is a debt of war that is not being properly considered, much less being paid and without a proper response will only increase as we enter into new conflicts.
Even the President recognized this - even if unknowingly - in his press conference when he said,
"When we send troops in, those troops get injured, they get killed, they're away from their families. Our country spends hundreds of billions of dollars. And so, given the fact that there are enormous sacrifices involved in any military action, it's best that we don't, you know, shoot first and aim later."
I don't think any would argue with his point that one should aim, have a plan, before they shoot. However, one cannot take aim without having selected a weapon that will do the job. In other words, you need to ready the weapon before taking aim. The call isn't to aim and fire, it is to "Ready...Aim...Fire." No nation is better prepared - ready to take aim - than the United States.
The question is not about whether we should have a plan to deal with ISIS - that part is obvious. But are we ready and willing to implement an overall strategy - to do something? If so, whatever our strategy, it must include caring for those who fight the battles once the war is over, for the President is right about the injuries and loss of life our troops will experience.
Likewise, we need a plan to take care of the "sacrifices" made by those who have already served. From the Vietnam War forward, over 6.5 million men and women have been deployed to combat theaters. If projections are accurate that a minimum of 20% (current projections regarding Vietnam are at 30%) of these will experience PTSD or Moral Injury, more than 1.5 million veterans and their families are in need of assistance. Any new conflict will only raise these numbers.
If we are ready to send our troops to war, are we ready to ensure they receive the care they need when they return? That is an important part of the debate that can no longer be ignored - it must be addressed. Our veterans deserve no less.
[Ed. Note: To learn more about actions needed to address the concerns of PTSD and Moral Injury read the accompanying article
Shock and Awe: A Response to Combat Trauma by Eugene Cuevas]