Unknowing the Enemy

unknowing_enemy
Seven months ago, in the Paris jihad attacks, 130 people were killed. Then there were 14 killed in the jihad attack in San Bernardino in December. In the Brussels jihad attacks, three months ago, 32 were killed. About 12 hours after at least 50 people were massacred this morning in Orlando by a man who pledged allegiance to ISIS before he began shooting, the President of the United States went on national television and said this:

Although it’s still early in the investigation, we know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate.

Is that all we know? Are those generic characterizations the best that those in charge—those with all the inside information—can come up with? Will the President go back on national television later to fill everyone in on the details once they’re certified, or are the real reasons behind this just too insignificant to trouble ourselves with?

Fifteen years ago, and about a month after the 9/11 attacks, the singer Bob Dylan (of whom I’m fond) was interviewed by Rolling Stone, as he happened to have a new album out. The interviewer asked him for his reaction to the recent events, and he said this:

Those people in charge, I’m sure they’ve read Sun-Tzu, who wrote The Art of War in the sixth century. In there he says, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself and not your enemy, for every victory gained you will suffer a defeat.” And he goes on to say, “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Whoever’s in charge, I’m sure they would have read that.

And of-course: everyone’s read Sun Tzu. You can pick that kind of thing up for virtually nothing and impress people with your cool references and deep thinking. It’s all just too obvious to bear, isn’t it?

At the time, it seemed there was a spirit of highly serious purpose in the wake of the killing of thousands in the attacks in New York and Washington DC and Pennsylvania. The enemy was al-Qaeda, whose leaders were clearly promulgating a virulent form of Islam, sheltered by the Taliban who advocated the same ideology, and by eliminating those players and establishing democracy and freedom in Afghanistan, the enemy might be defeated. That, at least, seemed to be the plan, though concepts like “democracy” and “freedom” somehow did not vanquish all that lay before them in that part of the world.

And, the more time went by, it seemed the lines between things became less and less clear. Words are important; yet generic terms like “terror” muffled more precise characterizations. Then came the war in Iraq, and—while the military did their job with honor—more and more at the level of political leadership things became blurred in a mish-mash of goals and justifications. A new president eventually replaced the one in power on 9/11: one eager to repudiate all that had preceded him. Focusing on the precise nature and motivation of the actual enemy became, even more, something to be avoided at all costs. And, indeed, it seems that there are costs.

The dead perpetrator of this particular massacre, Omar Mir Seddique Mateen, was “on the radar” of the FBI, reportedly interviewed twice in 2013, and once in 2014. Whatever scary jihadi-like statements he had made which attracted their attention, they decided that he was not worthy of the kind of surveillance that could have prevented him from freely marching into that nightclub named “Pulse” with a variety of guns and explosives and murdering more than 50 people at his leisure.

And, after all, when you don’t know who you’re looking for, how in the world are you going to find them?

And, after all, when you don’t know who you’re looking for, how in the world are you going to find them?

Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, those “in charge” seem to know the enemy only dramatically less than the enemy was known even back then. It is a decidedly strange phenomenon.




This slaughter in Orlando has been the worst terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11, and the worst mass shooting ever in the United States. Yet, I doubt I’m alone in sensing a lot less of “Je suis Charlie” in the aftermath and a lot more of “J’ai l’ennui.” If so, what a conspicuous harbinger of our decline. By this, I refer not to the lack of slogans and hashtags, but rather to the absence of a willingness to even pay serious attention for more than 5 or 10 minutes to the war being waged on our increasingly sad civilization.