The Islamic State group has unleashed a new set of coordinated terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe and seeks to provoke deeper fear, hatred and militarization.
Unfortunately, it is succeeding.
As we tend to the victims and their families and reassure the shaken, the trumpets of war and exclusion are already elevating their sound in both Europe and the U.S. And maybe rightfully so as it is indeed cathartic to lash back at those who have hurt us in despicable, devilish ways.
We have a long history now of combating modern terrorism, dating back to at least the 1970s and continuing through the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to the recent attacks in Paris and now Brussels. And we have learned some hard lessons. We should remember a few of them as we approach the precipice of a new phase in our reactions to the current threat.
First, violent reactions to terrorism must be focused, discriminate and carefully planned. A general resort to war has been almost completely ineffective in Iraq and other regions, and overreaction fuels the resentments and recruitment of more terrorists. Excessive violence undermines more of our friends than our enemies.
The best counterterrorism operations have been clearly targeted as law enforcement, not war, and when necessary, killing those who have committed and abetted the worst of the crimes.
We must also articulate our values and live up to them. Terrorism shines a spotlight on our societies and the frequent mistreatment of people, including immigrants. We are not responsible for the terrorists, but we aid their hatred when we act in hateful ways. During the past decade, the rhetoric of intolerance in the United States, especially in Texas, has given false evidence to terrorist claims about our alleged tyranny of Muslims and other minorities.
As we fight individual terrorists, we must flagrantly display how much we value, love and cherish the millions of good people who happen to share the same religion, ethnicity and background. We are not fighting a religion or a race. We are fighting criminals, and some of them are white Christians too.
Finally, and most important, we must show patience. Quick reactions have almost always failed to produce their promised results. Time is on our side, and we should use it to investigate, understand and plan before we react.
We are better off absorbing another terrorist attack and preparing more effectively to interdict the terrorists, rather than overreacting and creating a multiplying effect of new terrorist threats down the road.
Despite the fear and suffering, the basic security of our society is not imperiled as it was by Soviet missiles during the Cold War. We are best served by addressing the core sources of criminality rather than locking down to anticipate the next fire. We must play the long game because that is our greatest interest and our greatest advantage.
The fear of terrorism is real and legitimate. Strategic leadership, however, must do more than react to fear. Strategic leadership involves deep analysis, historical perspective and policymaking for the long term. We must use all of our capabilities, but we must use them wisely and effectively.
Feel-good reactions are self-defeating and play into the terrorists’ hands. Courage comes in careful planning, close attention to our values, and considered timing. In the end, we will be judged by how we react more than how we have suffered.
Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including “Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama.”
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