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Lone wolf terrorist attacks are the thorniest problem in national security

Obama And Biden Meet With National Security Leaders At The White House Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando isn't just a tragedy for the dozens of victims and their families. It’s an example of a scenario that, as I understand from conversations with Obama's national security team over the years, long before the shootings in San Bernardino, California, has haunted the White House’s thinking on terrorism.

The basic problem is that once a shooting spree shifts into the mental and political category of "terrorism," an expectation develops that there will be a foreign policy response.

The White House thinks such a response would likely be dangerous. Many senior administration officials at this point are part of the permanent national security apparatus, but the core group of real "Obama people" has a surprisingly dovish self-conception, where they see themselves operating in a world in which demands for military intervention are constant and endless — from the media, from congressional Republicans, from foreign governments and their allies in Washington, and from the permanent security bureaucracy itself — but America's actual ability to engage in non-counterproductive interventions is quite limited.

This leaves Obama’s team struggling to address the issue in a way that seems emotionally satisfying. Events of this nature call for statements of national resolve and togetherness. There is no equivalent to George W. Bush’s famous vow from near Ground Zero that "the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon," because Obama doesn’t have any big new anti-ISIS initiatives to roll out.

Instead, he pivots to gun control — an issue whose highly partisan nature spoils the mood — largely because it offers an outlet for the sense that something must be done that doesn't commit the administration to doing anything it thinks would backfire.

Obama fears the lone wolf – and the reaction

When I had the chance to interview President Obama more than 18 months ago, I asked him if in some ways terrorism is an overrated problem. Part of what he said in response turned into a silly media gaffe controversy, but he was trying to articulate a serious and important point that is extremely relevant to the Orlando massacre (emphasis added):

Look, the point is this: My first job is to protect the American people. It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris. We devote enormous resources to that, and it is right and appropriate for us to be vigilant and aggressive in trying to deal with that — the same way a big city mayor's got to cut the crime rate down if he wants that city to thrive. But we also have to attend to a lot of other issues, and we've got to make sure we're right-sizing our approach so that what we do isn't counterproductive. I would argue that our invasion of Iraq was counterproductive to the goal of keeping our country safe.

His point, in other words, is that while people are correct to be alarmed about the dangers of small-scale terrorist attacks, it’s no good to express that alarm in ways that are counterproductive to the actual security of the country.

Things like banning Muslims from entering the United States, talking about bombing ISIS-held territory with less regard for civilian life, and — as Donald Trump put it — being "very strong in terms of looking at the mosques" are not tough-minded ideas to solve a serious problem. They're ideas that will make the problem worse, lending enormous credibility to ISIS’s view that all the world’s Muslims are locked in a zero-sum struggle for survival with the West and greatly multiplying our enemies.

"Don't do stupid shit"

Obama’s problem is that with each spectacular attack, the pressure mounts to do more, to send troops somewhere or bomb something or ban someone from doing something — even though more intensive military engagement is a violation of the "don't do stupid shit" principle that constitutes a more profound national security doctrine than Obama is given credit for.

After all, even before the Orlando attack, the US government was already well aware of the threat posed by ISIS. And given America’s long, sad history of mass shootings, it does not appear to be the case that any kind of substantial infrastructure is required for radicalized individuals to legally obtain semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines and shoot a bunch of people.

If there were any big new foreign policy ideas for countering ISIS that the White House thought made sense, the administration would be executing them already. But an attack on US soil demands that we "do something" — something that would already have been rejected as unworkable or counterproductive.

This is why Obama's statements after these attacks tend to strike many as emotionally unsatisfactory. It’s not the time or the place for a scoldy lecture on how we shouldn’t overreact. But it’s also not the time or the place for a somber vow to hunt down the perpetrators and make sure they never strike again. The only real perpetrator is already dead, and the larger ISIS organization that inspired him is a thorny problem that we are making steady progress against with what the White House already believes to be the best strategy.

Gun control as safety valve

Relatively few mass shootings in the United States feature ideological affiliations with ISIS or other radical Islamic movements. And the kind of spectacular mass shootings that dominate media attention are a small fraction of the gun homicides in the United States. And overall homicides are a minority of gun deaths in the United States.

Consequently, to really tackle the "gun problem" in America — meaning the problem by which a large number of people die each year who would live if the country were less awash in firearms — would require a level of gun regulation and gun confiscation that is, to say the least, politically unrealistic.

Instead, liberals tend to push much narrower legislative ideas designed for maximum poll appeal. Senate Democrats are reviving a plan to create a kind of federal "no-gun list" similar to the no-fly list.

Others are pushing to revive the idea of a ban on high-capacity magazines, which would limit users of semiautomatic rifles to firing 10 shots before they had to stop and reload with a new clip. You can make a reasonable case that this would modestly impair murderers or one that it would moderately impair the use of guns in self-defense, but the basic reality is it wouldn't be a very big deal one way or the other, because changing magazines can be done very quickly.

But gun control does offer the important foreign policy benefit of being something dramatic the government could do about the lone wolf terrorist problem that, at a minimum, won’t be wildly counterproductive. Background checks and other modest, politically realistic gun control measures won't prevent all lone wolf attacks, but they should make them somewhat rarer and less deadly — which is a lot more than can be said for new foreign wars or discriminatory domestic policies.

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