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    Candidates' Positions on Terrorism

In the global arena, the term “terrorism” is hotly controversial. As a rule, people are unwilling to accept the label for their own activities, and are eager to apply it to that of their enemies. During World War II, for instance, Allied forces employed tactics such as firebombings and the use of nuclear (fission-based/atomic) weapons against civilian populations. Because the purpose of these attacks was explicitly the frightening and demoralization of the enemy over even destruction of real infrastructure, ideological opponents of the United States have called them terrorist acts. Americans tend to disagree. More recently, in 1998, the infamous Osama bin Laden called the United States “the worst thieves in the world and the worst terrorists”, reasoning that the US were aggressors and enemies of God. It is impossible, therefore, to objectively deploy the word “terrorist” without the inclusion of strict stipulations, and so for the purposes of this article, we discuss terrorism as it is most relevant to American politics today: The use of violence by Muslim extremists against American targets - though of course the term has a daunting scope well beyond this limited definition.

The phenomenon of terrorist attacks by Muslims (and here we deliberately avoid use of the term “Islamic terrorism”, as that term in itself has become controversial) against the US is most easily traceable to the founding of Israel in 1948 and the United States' (under then-President Harry Truman) immediate recognition and support of the Jewish nation. Modern terrorists frequently cite this support as a major motivating factor behind their operations. They also complain of American military and economic activity in the Middle East, which they claim has been responsible for mass suffering and the deaths of innocents, but prior to the aftermath of Israel's establishment, there is no record of terror attacks by Muslims in the US. Such attacks did not begin immediately, however. One of the earliest (though not necessarily the first, which is difficult to authoritatively determine) occurred on April 14, 1972 in New York City, New York, when ten members of a local mosque phoned in a threat to law enforcement, then laid in wait and ambushed police who rushed to the scene. One officer was killed.

Terrorist attacks in the following years and decades were numerous, but generally small in scale, usually contained to shootings that each claimed one or two victims. A sizable proportion of these attacks was blamed on the Nation of Islam, a group purportedly established for the advancement of African-American interests but which, as the name implies, has a strictly Muslim theology and focus on Islamic concerns. It has been designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

A major attack occurred on September 1, 1993, when agents of al Qaeda – a Sunni Islamist group founded by a group of wealthy Arabs, including but not limited to Osama bin Laden - maneuvered an explosives-laden truck below the North Tower of the World Trade Center before detonating the payload. The attack was carefully planned, with the terrorists' aim being to structurally compromise the North Tower such that it would collapse into the South Tower, destroying both and potentially amassing a death toll in the tens of thousands. This strategy was unsuccessful, as the North Tower failed to fall, but the explosion and its aftermath nevertheless claimed six lives and injured over 1,000 people.

A much larger and more successful operation occurred on September 11, 2001. In this attack, al Qaeda terrorists – again following an articulate plan and acting in careful coordination – hijacked 4 commercial airliners for use in “kamikaze” crashes against symbolic American targets. 2 of the planes were crashed into the World Trade Center, one each into the North and South Towers, this time destroying both and eventually (through peripheral damage) the entire WTC complex. A third plane struck the Pentagon, causing serious damage to that structure's western side. The remaining aircraft was destined for an attack on the US Capitol building, but its hijacked passengers rose up and engaged the terrorists on-board, and the plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field well short of its target – either deliberately to prevent it being used as a weapon, or unintentionally, as a result of the battle in the cockpit. Altogether, 2,996 people died, including the 19 hijackers (who were on a suicide mission), 343 firefighters, and 72 police officers. It was the deadliest single incident for first responders in US history, as well as the deadliest terror attack ever to occur on American soil.

The events of September 11th caused a paradigm shift in the nation's mindset toward terrorism. Terrorist attacks were always seen as dangerous, but now they took center stage as the primary threat to national security – with an urgency not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. New laws were enacted to strengthen law enforcement, including the highly controversial U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, which broadly expanded federal surveillance privileges upon American citizens. Military action has been undertaken, with the United States invading Middle Eastern nations Afghanistan (which harbored al Qaeda operatives prior to 9/11), and Iraq (whose connection to 9/11 has since been, effectively, discredited). On May 2, 2011, US Navy SEAL commandos were ordered to attack a compound in Pakistan where, it had been discovered, Osama bin Laden was living. Five compound residents were killed, including bin Laden himself; the SEAL team took no casualties.

Today, terrorism remains a major political issue in the United States. Virtually all elected representatives and candidates agree on the need for security measures against potential attacks, but pointed controversy exists over the means to be used.

Central Issues

Military Involvement
The 2003 invasion of Iraq, originally promised to be a speedy affair that would pay large dividends, ultimately proved to be a protracted and costly conflict of dubious benefit to the United States. This event has largely quelled the appetite for military action that flared in the US following 9/11. Some people, however, still call for the use of the military against terrorists.

Those opposed to using military force usually cite Iraq as proof that American ground deployments in the Middle East are doomed to failure. They are likely to encourage the implementation of local forces under Middle Eastern governments to combat terrorism. People of this opinion may support limited American involvement in “non-combat” roles, which typically means training the soldiers who would be doing the actual fighting. In some cases, air strikes – which are typically not costly in comparison to a ground war and usually do not produce American casualties – against selected targets may also be acceptable.

People who support American military action in the Middle East say that the US military is most competent to combat terror. They cite the dangers made evident by 9/11 and warn that such attacks could be repeated if all possible actions are not taken against terrorism. In the specific case of the large terrorist group ISIS, people of this opinion may also cite an American moral responsibility – the US invasion of Iraq is widely blamed for the group's prosperity, as the removal of dictator Saddam Hussein from power is said to have caused a breakdown of order in Iraq that set the stage for ISIS.

Government Surveillance
On October 26, 2001, in the direct aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, congress passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism, or U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act. Among other changes to existing law, this bill gave law enforcement agencies new sweeping authority to search the telephone, financial, library, and other records of individuals without the need for a warrant, and to search a person's home or business without that person's consent – or even knowledge, if the search occurred while the owner was away. Later, in 2013, National Security Administration contractor Edward Snowden shared secret documents with journalists proving that the government was conducting warrantless surveillance of private American citizens on a scale never before realized, including of e-mails (both aggregate records and individual correspondence), phone calls, and Internet activities. Because the information he leaked was of a highly confidential nature, he was immediately accused of espionage and treason, and remains a fugitive to this day. At last report, he was residing in Russia, unable to return to the United States for fear of arrest and prosecution.

Supporters of this level of government surveillance argue that it is necessary to ensure national security. They say that in a world plagued by global terrorism, the threat of which was made starkly obvious by 9/11, it is dangerous to hamstring law enforcement by requiring it to follow traditional, time-consuming protocols, such as obtaining warrants, when terrorists can do and operate quickly. These people also point out that while the government technically can observe people's private communications, it realistically does not do so to the vast majority of average Americans, nor would it have the resources to undertake such a feat. They claim that those who have nothing to hide, therefore, have nothing to fear.

Opponents of the surveillance programs decry them as an invasion of privacy forbidden by the constitution. They maintain that terrorists can be adequately located and foiled using standard law enforcement techniques, and that any additional efficiency bestowed by warrantless spying is not worth the price paid. They also worry that these efforts represent a power grab by the government, and that once such techniques are accepted as commonplace, it will be very difficult to have them discontinued. Such people seem particularly fond of quoting Benjamin Franklin, who once famously wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Islam is a religion founded in 610 AD, originally for the benefit of Arabic people in the Middle East. At that time, people living in that region were divided into numerous tribes, each with its own deities and religious traditions. Islam's official theology teaches that Mohammed, whom Muslims (meaning “one who submits to God”, the name preferred by adherents of Islam) venerate as the greatest prophet ever sent to Earth, preached to the tribes that there was but a single God, the Jewish God Yahweh, and that their many gods were heathen and must be abandoned. This makes Islam an Abrahamic religion, or one born of the Jewish faith, as Jews and Muslims in fact worship the same God. It is also considered a descendent of Christianity: Muslims believe that Jesus (as described in the books Christians call the New Testament, which Muslims accept as basically true but changed and perverted by humans into a story of Jesus as a divine being) was one of God's greatest prophets, second only to Mohammed himself, and in fact it is customary in Islamic culture never to speak the name of Jesus without adding the phrase “alayhi as-salam” (“peace be upon him”) immediately after. Muslims refer to God as “Allah”, an Arabic word meaning “the God”, emphasizing again Islam's monotheistic practice and disdain for polytheism. There are currently about 1.67 billion Muslims in the world, making Islam the world's largest or second-largest religion – only Christianity is calculable as having more adherents – about 2.2 billion - and then only if one counts it as a single faith across Catholicism, Protestantism (with its many denominations), Greek Orthodoxy, and so on.

Islam has risen to become a center of extreme controversy within the United States (and Western civilization in general), because some of its adherents have demonstrated an alarming willingness and even eagerness to use violence in the service of their aims and interests. The airplane hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 were believed to be affiliated with al Qaeda, a militant Islamic organization whose leaders had referred to the United States as the ”Great Satan” and called for jihad – an Arabic term meaning to strive for the preservation and prosperity of the Muslim faith, but used in this context to refer to the waging of holy war – against the nation. The shooting at Fort Hood, in which Army Major Nidal Hasan murdered 13 people and injured 30 others, began with Hasan shouting “Allahu Ackbar!” (“God is great”) before beginning his rampage. And in an evolution of extremism which many in the world have decried as absurdly oversensitive, some Muslims have threatened and even attacked cartoonists for drawing caricatures of Mohammed (visible depictions of Mohammed are strictly forbidden in the Islamic faith, for fear they may raise the prophet to the status of an idol and cause him – rather than God alone - to be worshipped).

Virtually all political camps agree about the danger of terrorism and the need for security against it. However, the religious affiliation of those carrying out the terrorist attacks has caused some people (mostly on the political right) to regard Islam as at least a suspect religion, and at worst the enemy itself. These people are likely to regard Muslims with suspicion and wariness. In the most extreme evolution of this mindset, some politicians have declared that a Muslim should never be allowed to be President of the United States, or that mosques (centers of Islamic worship, analogous to Christian churches or Jewish temples) should be specially monitored or even acted upon by law enforcement for breeding extremists.

Those opposed to this viewpoint, who are generally on the left, cite the fact that of the billion and a half Muslims in the world, the great majority have never committed a terrorist act. They also point out the violent history of the United States' own dominant religion, Christianity, and sometimes allege “Christian terrorism” in modern incidents such as bombings of abortion clinics. Those on the most extreme end of this scale have expressed reservations about or even refused outright to refer to “Islamic terror” (a favorite term of the right), believing the term is unfair and bigoted against Muslims. They are likely to accuse their political opponents of “Islamophobia”, a label that has entered into common parlance with the advent of this debate.

Candidates' Positions on Terrorism

Hillary Clinton
Gary Johnson
Jill Stein
Donald Trump


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