In the wake of the shooting in Chattanooga, TN people are searching for answers about how to keep these kinds of attacks from happening. Some have suggested that recruiters be allowed to carry firearms, which might have minimized the loss of life in this case. The troubling issue here, as far as we know, is that the shooter was not a known troublemaker. If he is a part of the new face of domestic terrorism -- a lone wolf self-radicalized by ISIS social media messages or simply anti-Western Islam infused messages -- then there isn't a lot that can be done --short of arming everyone and encasing us all in bulletproof glass. If law enforcement hardens military targets like the one attacked last week, the lone wolves will find other spaces. The man arrested in Boston recently was targeting colleges.
In this context I was reminded of a panel discussion I moderated on terrorism at the Aspen Ideas Festival with Richard Haas, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Nick Burns, a professor at Harvard and former ambassador to NATO and Greece and Farah Pandith, also of Harvard and CFR. In that wide-randing conversation, we talked about ways to stop the terrorist threat. Pandith made the case that "Part of the reason that [ISIS is] wining is because they are saying "we won," "we won," "we won" and they are gaining recruits because they are gaining land." Her argument was that in order to stop lone wolves, America has to defeat ISIS overseas. A military strike would do more than simply shut off the computers that are sending out the social media messages that radicalize young men in places like Boston and Chattanooga. It would deprive ISIS of public relations momentum.
Haas added to this point: "ISIS is a momentum play and we've got to break the momentum. I think the best place to break the momentum in the near-term is Iraq and I would focus on the Kurds and the Sunni tribes. They are the most capable actors. If we can break the momentum, the recruiting will begin to slow...They can't have an aura of inevitability about them or that will become self-fulfilling. We have got to break that."
If this is the case, then the more of these random attacks with unsatisfying responses could increase the call for increased military action against ISIS. It's already been notable that the public's war-weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan has dissipated in the face of ISIS. In March, 62 percent of the public supported the use of ground troops.
UPDATE: I was talking to an administration official about this idea and the official agreed with the premise about knocking back ISIS momentum as a way to drain its social media message. The worst way to do that, argued the official, was to put U.S. boots on the ground because that's what ISIS wants-- to show that it has the power to drag down the United States. And also, ISIS wants to use the idea of the U.S. attack for its propaganda purposes. As Graeme Wood writes in the Atlantic's widely heralded What Does ISIS want "The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself. The provocative videos, in which a black-hooded executioner addresses President Obama by name, are clearly made to draw America into the fight. An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide: irrespective of whether they have given baya'a to the caliph, they all believe that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims. Yet another invasion and occupation would confirm that suspicion, and bolster recruitment." That's why, says the official, the administration has been so anxious to get countries in the region to participate in the fight against ISIS.