Everybody has somebody in Washington. There’s the sugar lobby, the drug lobby and the insurance lobby. The unions have their people, and of course, the associations in D.C. have an association of their own to represent them on Capitol Hill.
One group of Americans, homegrown radical Islamist terrorists, don’t have a lobbyist in Washington. But they really don’t need one for all of the work that Republicans, Democrats and the National Rifle Association seem to have been doing for them lately. In the days since Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., it has become obvious that the ideology of Islamist terrorism in America has evolved and changed radically since two jets flew into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Terrorists can be men or women. They may act with a terrorist network overseas or come up with their plans completely alone, radicalized only by the messages they see through social media. The terror threat in the United States today is diffuse, dynamic, difficult to predict and sometimes, tragically, impossible to prevent.
But in the face of the asymmetric danger we’re facing, Washington seems to be totally calcified by political dynamics that leave ordinary Americans wondering whose side they’re on.
In the days after the killing, President Barack Obama waited for days to call the shooting an act of terror. In his Oval Office address Sunday night, the president said the killers had “gone down the dark path of radicalization,” but never called them radical Islamist terrorists, despite all evidence that they are.
The president seemed to want to be careful not to group Islamist terrorists with Muslim-Americans, which is prudent and important. But he also seemed not to be deeply worried by the new culture of terror in America, which would make him nearly the only person in the country who is not.
If the president’s failures were rhetorical, House and Senate Republicans’ failures were as easy to spot as a “no” vote on last week’s measure to prevent anyone on the terror watch list from purchasing a firearm. The NRA had alerted its members immediately , “Tell your senators to vote NO on any and all gun control proposals up for debate in today’s session,” including the vote on the watch list.
Putting aside the fact that Farook and Malik were never on the terrorist watch list and would not have been affected by the legislation, how is it possible that potential terrorists who cannot board a plane for fear that they could blow it up could legally purchase a weapon tomorrow if they wanted to?
The United States has gone to great lengths to destroy ISIS and enact arms embargoes against America’s enemies overseas, but it remains breathtakingly easy for would-be terrorists to arm themselves on U.S. soil with weapons of mass carnage. Other than a moment of silence for the victims of the shootings, Congress is not expected to do much of anything in the near future that could prevent San Bernardino from happening again, anywhere else.
Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, told me that although the threat of homegrown terror, like the attack in San Bernardino, has been known to Washington policymakers for years, very little has been done to combat it.
“It’s fair to say there haven’t been any policy changes since we’ve seen the threat increase,” Hughes said. He said Congress could do more to try to prevent attacks, through education on warning signs and pushing resources out to communities closest to the threat. “But at the end of the day, if somebody is extremely motivated, it is very hard to stop them,” Hughes said. “The question becomes how large is the carnage.”
In 2011, Adam Gadahn, the American-born spokesman for al-Qaida, starred in a recruiting video to urge like-minded American citizens to up arms against American targets and use the freedoms that are built into our society against us. “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms,” he said to the camera , detailing the easiest ways to buy an assault rifle. “So what are you waiting for?” Gadahn asked.
There have been five homegrown terror attacks since Gadahn made that video. More can be done to stop the next one. The question for Congress and the president is, “What are you waiting for?”
Patricia Murphy is a former Capitol Hill staffer who covers national politics for The Daily Beast.