Is America Next? – POLITICO Magazine
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When a bomb goes off in Europe, Americans shudder as if rocked by the blast. Whatever the geographical reality, post-industrial Old Europe—in Donald Rumsfeld’s deathless phrase—is, emotionally speaking, our nearest neighbor and closest peer. So if an explosion propels shattered glass and broken bodies in a Brussels airport, we instinctively expect it to happen here next.
We shouldn’t. While the jihadist threat is genuinely global, it is by no means equally distributed. There is, of course, no such thing as perfect security, and as we saw as recently as the San Bernardino shootings in December of last year, there are individuals in the United States who are prepared to commit violence against other Americans. But the European context underlying the attacks at Brussels Airport and the downtown Maelbeek subway station—one of alienated, underemployed and ghettoized Muslims as well as subpar security—differs dramatically from anything found in the United States.
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To begin with, consider the Muslim-minority communities of North America and Europe. In the United States, Muslim communities are mostly comprised of reasonably well-off families from numerous Muslim-majority countries. Income and education levels are roughly those of average Americans—the only sizable asterisk on that statement is the impoverished refugees who have come from Somalia.
By contrast, Europe’s Muslim communities were seeded by poor peasants who came as guest workers for the burgeoning industries of the postwar period. They were expected to return home. Instead, they stayed even as their industries faded—think of Britain’s rust belt in the Midlands—and grew in numbers due to family unification and comparatively high fertility.
They came poor and, to a large extent, have stayed poor, with little access to higher education and much higher unemployment rates than those of the non-Muslim populations. And this is in countries already plagued by high unemployment. They tend to be concentrated in rundown urban neighborhoods that look more like the places they and their forbears hail from—with their satellite dishes and drying laundry—than the surrounding neighborhoods.
Although the overwhelming majority of European Muslims want nothing to do with extremism and, as polls show, are often as patriotic or more so than their non-Muslim fellow citizens, there are more extremists in their midst than in the United States. In Belgium, the numbers are particularly high. According a Soufan Group report from December, for example, 470 Belgian Muslims have gone to fight in Syria or Iraq out of a population of about 660,000—in terms of rate of recruitment, it is the top supplier of militants in Western Europe.
By contrast, an estimated 250 American Muslims have gone to the region out of a population five or more times larger. (Demographics on the U.S. Muslim community are problematic; Pew puts its estimate at 3.3 million Muslims.) Overall, Western European Muslims are three times likelier to end up in ISIStan than their American co-religionists. As an indicator of radicalization levels, this is pretty definitive.
For another barometer, though, consider this: Since 9/11, the four largest attacks in Europe—Madrid (2004), London (2005), Paris (2015) and Brussels (2016)—have claimed at least 426 lives. In the United States, even with the Fort Hood shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing and San Bernardino, the total is 45. Add in a passel of smaller attacks over the years in Europe, and the difference with the United States is a factor of 10.
One big reason why the chances of a Brussels or Paris-like attack are lower here is that we’ve been working flat out to reduce the threat for almost 15 years, since 9/11. With one of the worst extremism problems in the West, Britain has gone hard at this as well. But the same cannot be said for our Continental cousins. The United States has spent upwards of $650 billion on homeland security since 9/11. No comparable European statistic exists, but judging by law enforcement, border security and other agency budgets, the overall figures are much lower. The numerous French government foul-ups in the run-up to and aftermath of the Paris attacks tell the story.
Within this picture, Belgium has been an especially sad case. Deeply riven by political conflicts between its Flemings and Walloons over political reform, the country was distracted by a domestic political crisis that ran on and off from 2007 to 2011. During much of this time, there was only a caretaker government, and the Belgians’ inability to improve their counterterrorism capabilities was a running frustration for U.S. officials. At one point, I observed to a senior Belgian official that his country was competing with Iraq for taking the longest time to form a government. “The comparison is not welcome,” he replied drily. In the end, the Belgians took more than twice as long—541 days—to form a government; their authorities were stuck with flat budgets and little room for new programs.
There are other reasons why Europe is—and will be—more bedeviled by jihadist terrorism for some years to come. The United States still has the blessing of geography—two oceans that mean that outside extremists will need to fly to get here. As we found on Christmas Day 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab tried to detonate his underwear on a flight bound for Detroit, our aviation security, no-fly lists and intelligence need constant updating. But we have made major strides. By contrast, Europe, with its weak external borders, nonexistent internal borders and a migrant crisis that has brought close to a million and a half migrants into its borders, faces multiplying perils.
America’s advantages are no reason for complacency, even if they do suggest that panic isn’t justified. Much could still go wrong. Donald Trump’s effort to outrage American Muslims, who are the first line of defense against extremism—and whose trust in U.S. law enforcement is invaluable—will likely continue for months to come. And if the violence in Europe spreads, we still face a major challenge—a fire next door with unpredictable consequences.
Is America Next? – POLITICO Magazine