On Monday, “CBS This Morning” had a brief segment featuring former CIA deputy director Michael Morrell speaking about Friday’s warning from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security about potential terror attacks in the U.S. during this upcoming July 4th holiday weekend. According to Morrell, “there is nothing routine” about this warning. In fact, he said, “I wouldn't be surprised if we're sitting here a week from today talking about an attack over the weekend in the United States. That's how serious this is.”
He states that about fifty people have been arrested in the past twelve months inside the US for plotting to commit acts of terror either here or abroad. This past Sunday, the New York Times had a front-page feature about the radicalization of a lonely young American woman, finding solace in the friendships she made with ISIS members online. Eventually, they convinced her to convert to Islam, and began to purge her Twitter account of infidels. This was a young woman who had never actually met a Muslim in person. The ISIS member she was corresponding with also communicated with one of the gunmen in the recent Mohammed drawing contest shooting in Texas.
While most Americans where paying attention to the historic rulings of the Supreme Court, there were three coordinated attacks by ISIS in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France, which left over sixty-five people dead. In addition, ISIS has been making gains, Michael Weiss reports, in their local wars in the Syria and Iraq. There they have turned momentary defeats into comebacks, winning over the local population.
While international media and Western military focus was fixed on this largely “symbolic” battle (as the Pentagon itself characterized Kobani), ISIS had all the while been cultivating local populations, dispatching its notorious sleeper cells, and executing attritional attacks on Deir Ezzor, Homs, Damascus, not to mention western and central Iraq. It turned a tactical defeat into a strategic advantage, having learned how through nearly a decade of bleeding the American military in Iraq under the guise of its earlier incarnation, al-Qaeda.
The complexities of the conflict in the Middle East are beyond the understanding of most, but the domestic radicalization of westerners makes a certain amount of sense. The young woman in the New York Times story lived an isolated life. I wrote in May about a young German girl raised by atheists who tried Christianity, found her experience of it lacking, met a young Muslim, and converted. Although she herself has not yet been radicalized, the recipe is the same.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron sees the clarity of the ideological battle lines, calling “militant Islamist ideology ‘an existential threat’ to the West and said Britain was confronting ‘the struggle of our generation.’” Cameron is right to point out that the war is one of deeper ideas, but I don’t know if he grasps the heart of the problem. The culture in Britain and other western nations have abandoned the foundation which allows true freedom and strong communities. A society built on self-satisfaction and material goods has no soul, no common bond besides insuring one’s things are kept safe. And this is not something worth living (or dying) for.
The young woman in the Times article sought out her pastor’s advice about the Trinity, denied by Islam. “Friendly at first, the pastor ushered her out after 15 minutes, telling her she needed to trust in the mystery of God, she said.” Christianity—which has the answers and the community to satisfy the longings of the restless heart—must be presented with confidence and pastoral care, otherwise the seeking-soul will look for comfort elsewhere, often finding solace in extremism.
This July 4th weekend, young Americans with names like Alex, Justin, Noelle, and Jonas from Washington state, Brooklyn, North Carolina, Minnesota, Ohio, and Massachusetts, may be looking to kill innocent people because they think it will please their friends online and their God. These are Americans who have experienced the freedoms and comforts of this society, but who have not been satisfied by the shallow answers of secular society and therapeutic Christianity. In the battle with ISIS in the Middle East, bombs and guns can only contain the advance of radicalism temporarily, while the terrorist ranks grow in number among dissatisfied souls. At home, security bulletins and increased police presence are only a bandage on a larger, gaping wound in our society. The threat will continue to grow unless decadence is replaced by true freedom, grounded in truth, faithful to the God of love.
Dominic Bouck, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer intern at First Things.