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Sending The Right Messages On Terrorist Acts

Memo Pad Politics

Sending The Right Messages On Terrorist Acts


The ancient Romans considered beheading a merciful alternative to crucifixion. The Islamic State is already using both, so what’s next? The lion’s den?

The arc of terror keeps bending upward — or maybe backward — to what Secretary of State John Kerry calls “sheer evil.” Amid the Iranian revolution almost 35 years ago, in one of the seminal acts of modern terrorism, Islamic militants captured dozens of Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 of them hostage for 444 days. They were subjected to mock executions and other forms of torture, and still bear the physical, emotional and psychological burdens of their captivity.

Those mock executions were at the point of a gun. That was terrifying to the blindfolded captives, enough in itself to induce post-traumatic stress. Yet on the scale of terror, it is hard to imagine anything worse than anticipating your own beheading by knife.

Ultimately, the Islamic State executions of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff will hasten the group’s decline. The murderers created martyrs and energized the international community, including many players often at odds with each other. There will be more air strikes in their future, most likely in Syria as well as those already under way in Iraq. Newly resolute nations might even be persuaded to stand with President Obama and stop paying the ransoms that are underwriting terrorist activities.

If it takes a little time to coordinate global and regional campaigns against the Islamic State, as Kerry and other officials are doing this month, that’s fine with me. I feel the same way about not immediately raining bombs on Syria. As explained on the PBS NewsHour by Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, a national security aide to both Obama and former President George W. Bush, this is called “tactical patience.” It means waiting for the right time to ensure the best results.

Obama’s rivals can tweet, publish and expound endlessly on what he is doing wrong and saying wrong, and his poll standings may well be the worse for it. It is indisputable that Obama has fallen short of clarity and inspiration at times. It’s always best to speak precisely and forcefully, and never wise to use the phrase “we don’t have a strategy yet.” In any context.

Still, certain realities will have more substantive impact than bad optics or political attacks. One is U.S. military might. Obama may use it less frequently than some would like, but few doubt our capacities. Another is that we got Osama bin Laden. It’s a cliché already, but it stands as a triumph of persistence and a message to the world.

Most decisions involving terrorism — including the raid that killed bin Laden — are impossibly difficult. But there is actually one relatively easy, bipartisan step that Congress and the Obama administration could take to reinforce the message that if you mess with Americans, you will pay. And that would be to compensate those 52 Americans held hostage in revolutionary Iran for 444 days.

Subsequent victims of terrorism have been winning damages in court over the years, but these former hostages — soldiers, spies, diplomats and support personnel — have never been allowed to sue. President Jimmy Carter, desperate for their release, signed an agreement in 1981 barring lawsuits by the former hostages against the government of Iran. Congress tried many times to override and circumvent that agreement, only to be quashed by courts and the State Department.

The will is there now, and so is the money. The White House, the State Department and lawmakers in both parties have been talking for months about unfreezing some of the billions in Iranian assets frozen during the 1979 crisis, or adding a surcharge to sanctions on companies that do business with Iran.

The need is there, as well. Some of the former hostages came home as ruins. Thirteen have died and several are in poor health. They have all grown old waiting for an apology, reparations, some acknowledgment of their ordeal. Retired Army Col. Charles Scott, 82, who was the U.S. Army attaché, says the United States let Iran get away with an act of war. “Great Satan surrenders” was the first headline he saw upon his release. “It was a win-win situation for Iran,” Scott told me.

But it doesn’t have to be. It’s not too late to make Iran pay in some way for a monumental terrorist act in its past, and to serve notice that the passage of years doesn’t mean the erasure of memory.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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Jill Lawrence

Award-winning journalist Jill Lawrence is a nationally syndicated columnist and a contributing editor to U.S. News & World Report. She also contributed to The Surge: 2014's Big GOP Win and What It Means for the Next Presidential Race (2015). Lawrence has discussed political and policy developments on television, radio, and many other media outlets. She was an adjunct professorial lecturer at American University in 2014, teaching on the relationship between politics and the media.

Lawrence has covered every presidential campaign since 1988, as well as historic events such as the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, the Clinton impeachment, the Florida recount, and the 1993 and 2009 battles over health reform.

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  1. Dominick Vila September 4, 2014

    President Obama is sending the right message to the terrorists, and to the world. Unfortunately, there are some among us who instead of trying to present a united front in the face of brutal terrorist acts, seize the opportunity to criticize and second guess the President, without a clear alternative, let alone a more viable strategy.
    President Obama’s cautious approach to direct involvement in the Syrian quagmire is consistent with the foreign policy decisions he has made since he became president. His is a measured approach that while leaving no ambiguity about our determination to find and punish those responsible for the beheading of two American journalists, refrain from committing ground troops to Syria, and only sent a small contingent to Iraq, ostensibly, to protect Americans and American interests, and to provide additional training to the Iraqi military at a time when they are besieged by well trained, armed, determined and well funded Sunni ISIS radicals.
    I suspect that our intelligence agencies did not miss the message sent by the executioners. That is, making the victims wear outfit reminiscent of those worn by Gitmo prisoners, and making them kneel. Hopefully, they have already gone through the entire list of Gitmo prisoners, have determined which ones moved to the UK, or had brothers or sons in the UK, and have already narrowed down the list to a couple of dozen suspects. After that, all we need is to determine their exact hiding place, and let our special forces do the rest.

    1. FireBaron September 4, 2014

      Too true, my friend, too true. ISIS, like al Quaida in Iraq, is the child of our invasion and its disastrous aftermath. We listened to people who not only had not been in Iraq in over 20 years, but many of them had outstanding criminal warrants in other nations for bank fraud, and embezzlement. But, we still listened to them as opposed to people who actually understood what was happening on the ground. We allowed their petty revenge to ruin what could have been a successful reconstruction by their clannish actions.

    2. Sand_Cat September 5, 2014

      Your note mentions one of the reasons it’s hard to condemn these things as “pure evil,” or at least as something totally unprovoked: Gitmo.
      When we made torture official policy, and many of us continue to defend it, who are we to criticize anyone else’s crimes?
      The article also mentions Iran: all those mock executions weren’t quite in the same league as the real executions during and after the US coup against a democratically-elected government to install the Shah, all in order to protect and increase our benefactor BP’s profits.
      Maybe we should add a service charge for this onto any fines assessed against BP.

      1. Dominick Vila September 6, 2014

        In fairness to Bush, I believe the root cause for most of the problems in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region can be traced all the way back to the days of the British mandate, when geographical borders were arbitrarily created with total disregard to the ancient animosities that existed between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, in the case of Iraq, and horrible decisions such as removing Mossadegh from power and supporting the Shah.
        The ousting of Saddam Hussein from power, a man who enjoyed the full support of the Reagan administration, including Rumsfeld, during the Iraq-Iran war, the replacement of members of the Baath party (Sunnis) from government positions with Shias, and the chaos and destruction that followed the invasion of Iraq, were icing on the cake.

        1. Sand_Cat September 6, 2014

          What you say is true, but – again, in fairness to Bush – there was an uneasy stability, with Hussein contained, and sanctions which unfortunately harmed the innocent more than the guilty in place. Had Bush stopped at getting the UN inspectors re-admitted and said something to the effect that we needed to work on fixing the sanctions so they don’t kill primarily children, etc., he might be remembered as the wise peacemaker in the middle east at least, in spite of his idiotic persona and criminal domestic agenda, and things might have actually stabilized; who can say for sure. But he wanted to be a “War President,” and “the Decider,” and wanted to show all those people at Yale who got in with intelligence and hard work instead of through nepotism and affirmative action for the rich, and he threw away whatever fragile chance there was for some stability without a second thought.

  2. howa4x September 4, 2014

    The answer lies underground and not on the airwaves. If we really want to stop Islamic terrorism we have to stop buying their oil. It will happen sooner since we have been developing our own supply and now natural gas is becoming more a part of our fuel supply as is solar, wind and nuclear. Once we can finally wean ourselves off Saudi and gulf state oil, then we will be less inclined to intervene in their crisis’s. The only reason we are there is because of cheap oil, but this oil comes with a price. For years rich Sheiks in the gulf have been funding terrorism. Sometimes as a bribe to keep radicals fighting somewhere else or out of religious duty. ISIS was originally funded this way, and is the hero of many Sunni’s who are in a constant battle with the Shia. Syria is ruled by a Alawithe sect of the Shia side of Islam and so was Iraq under Maliki, so ISIS is fighting a proxy war for the pride of the Sunni sect.
    For years Saudi wealth was used to set up radical Madrassas in Pakistan that turned out future Taliban fighters and fill the ranks of radical movements. So as we are sending billions to the Gulf states they are sending it to Sunni armies. Once we are rid of these petro dictatorships we will see a subsiding of conflict. Think about this, the harsh Sharia law that ISIS is setting up is no different than the law that Saudi Arabia already has. This is what we are fighting.


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