Carnage at Ariana Grande concert in the U.K. reminds us that this is a moral war.
In his speech in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, President Trump declared that the fight against terrorism is “a battle between good and evil.” As if on cue, the next day an Islamic State-affiliated terrorist proved the point.
Salman Abedi, 22, was identified by British authorities as the perpetrator of the shrapnel bombing at singer Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester, where at least 22 were killed and scores injured, many of them children and teens. A self-identified ISIS jihadi praised the “lions of the Islamic State”and promised that this is “only the beginning.”
Abedi’s plan of attack sought to maximize human carnage, using a bomb rigged to tear apart bodies with nails and ball bearings. He targeted young people who would have no inkling of what he was up to as he mingled among them. And the security cordon around the venue provided him with an ideal target group of kids clustered on their way out after the show. The plan was insidious, and effective.
Speaking in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Trump decried the death and injury of “dozens of innocent people, beautiful young children, savagely murdered in this heinous attack upon humanity.” The president is striking the right tone during his trip to rally key allies to his vision of the war on terror. Rather than distancing the conflict from religious symbolism, he is embracing it, visiting Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican — holy centers for the three Abrahamic faiths. And he explicitly casts the struggle as one of good vs. evil, in which the source of the evil must be identified and driven out. He called for “honestly confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires.” And he wants Muslim religious leaders to make clear to prospective terrorists that “piety to evil will bring you no dignity,” and for those who choose violence that “your soul will be condemned.”
Trump’s invocation of eternal damnation contrasted with President Obama’s more moderate and apologetic tone in his speech in Cairo in 2009, when he did not mention “evil” at all. The previous administration sought to downplay moral factors in the terror war. Obama was more committed to the evidence-free belief that extremism was the result of global warming. Or consider then-State Department spokesperson Marie Harf’s hapless view that the solution to terrorism was a good government jobs program.
Trump’s view is more elemental: Terrorists are the “evil losers in life” who need to be driven “out of this earth.” There are no excuses, no apologies, just ruthless condemnation and concerted action. This is reflected in the president’s recent order to Defense Secretary James Mattis to “surround” and “annihilate ISIS.” What it lacks in nuance, it makes up in vigor.
The terrorists have always seen the war in these moralistic terms. Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “letter to the American people” was a comprehensive explanation of the jihadists’ view of the conflict and a harsh indictment of Western liberalism. For the Islamist radicals, any action they take is sanctified by the holy nature of the struggle. The recent ISIS laptop bomb plot (which Al Jazeera says Jordan uncovered, not Israel as The New York Times reported) and Nazi-esque poison experiments on prisoners show that the jihadists are diligently trying to find new and more diabolical ways to make our lives more difficult and dangerous.
It is sensible to fight the terrorists not only on the battlefield but also in the moral domain. It is right to undercut their violent mythology by invoking the language and symbols of true faith. And we pray for no further reminders of what evil men can do.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant to the secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration. He is author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive. Follow him on Twitter: @james_robbins