The fear of mysterious little men is a powerful urge that can consume a great nation for a spell, but it is not so consuming if they look a lot like our neighbors.
Thus when nine Islamic jihadists kill 130 people in coordinated attacks in Paris, international terrorism suddenly becomes, according to polls, the greatest concern of American voters, far bigger than jobs, inequality, taxes, education, immigration, the environment or global warming. Every candidate for president tries to outdo the others in calling for stern and often outrageous action, including scrapping the Constitution, to protect Americans from sullen young Muslims.
But when a good old boy named Bob Dear, recently migrated from the Carolinas, seizes a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and shoots it out with police for five hours, killing three, injuring nine and terrorizing hundreds who were trapped in adjoining stores, it doesn't register as a concern except momentarily for those on both sides of the old battle over abortion and women's health clinics. Concern about guns — too many or not enough — takes a brief upward blip in the polls.
The growth of the violent Islamic state, whether ISIS, Boko Haram, al Qaeda or another ragtag Sunni clan, is a solemn issue that ought to engage presidential candidates, not because it represents an existential threat to our freedom, way of life or even our collective safety, but because the destabilized Middle East produced by the Iraqi wars and the sectarian revolutions all along the southern Mediterranean from Tunis to Turkey poses a grave threat of a wide conflagration that the United States will not be able to avoid, which is ISIS' central hope. It will make the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars look like Reagan's capture of the isle of Grenada.
Making the Middle East come out right calls for lots of brains, nerve, cunning and maybe boots and money, but promising to finish flattening Syrian or Iraqi cities controlled by ISIS or stuffing refugees back into the desert, while it gets cheers, won't solve the problem.
But that is the subject of a thousand columns and editorials. Let's deal now with the peril of domestic terrorism.
While it doesn't register as a political issue, homegrown terrorism by disaffected Americans — troubled youngsters and paranoid middle-aged men driven by reactionary whims like Robert Lewis Dear — kill more Americans and cause more havoc year after year than Middle Eastern ideology, the single day of 9/11 excluded. ISIS, al Qaeda and Boko Haram principally kill Arabs — 6,600 in Nigeria and 6,000 in Iraq last year alone and many more this year. We pay little attention. But deaths associated with Islamic extremism are outnumbered by attacks from violent American extremist groups and individuals, like Robert Dear, Ted Kaczynski the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, white supremacist Dylann Roof or the wacko Sovereign Citizens, the current generation of paranoid government haters who learned from terrorists in Belfast and the Middle East that with the glory of guns and explosives you can strike a mighty blow for the cause that will be heard across the land.
Troubled kids got the same message. Sovereign Citizens, who follow a racist and anti-Semitic ideology, believe the Constitution gives them the right to revoke their citizenship and ignore the authority of government, from taxes to traffic laws. Remember the father-son team of Jerry and Joe Kane, who murdered two policemen with an assault rifle when the cops dared to pull them over in West Memphis.
Bob Dear made an iconoclastic terrorist, finally devolving like the Unabomber into a mountain hermit. Aimless and unsuccessful at everything, he circulated anti-Obama leaflets and was upset by the political fuss over tapes that were doctored to suggest that Planned Parenthood sold parts of aborted fetuses for medical research, but mainly Dear just seemed to have grievances against women, whom he had stalked and assaulted. The cautionary Sen. Ted Cruz, however, tells us that the big bearded fellow is actually a hardcore leftist woman.
The prototypical domestic terrorist remains McVeigh, who uttered America's greatest protest against taxes and big government by setting off a truck bomb at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children, injuring more than 600 and damaging 300 buildings. McVeigh developed the impulse and the rationalization for terrorism in the first Iraqi war, Desert Storm. He said he felt joy in decapitating an Iraqi soldier soon after arriving and shock when he was ordered to shoot surrendering Iraqis. He won medals for his soldiering but reprimands for wearing a KKK "White Power" T-shirt at the base. Vegetating in his cell before his execution in 2001, McVeigh wrote a manifesto explaining how he could kill hundreds of innocent children and adults without remorse in the cause of unshackling people from a tyrannical government. He compared the Oklahoma City bombing to President Clinton's then-current missile attacks on suspected Iraq weapons facilities, which killed many innocents. Clinton uses missiles and bombs, he used a truck, he said. One wins praise, the other the death penalty. "When considering morality and mens rea [criminal intent]," McVeigh wrote, "I ask: Who are the true barbarians? ... Whether you wish to admit it or not, when you approve, morally, of the bombing of foreign targets by the U.S. military, you are approving acts morally equivalent to the bombing in Oklahoma City." McVeigh's is still the irresistible logic that guides terrorism everywhere, and it cannot be defeated without understanding it.