America Is in a Long War and We Should Laugh About It

Michael Weiss is not an especially cheerful guy these days. You wouldn’t be, either, if you spent your days reporting on extremism, kleptocracy and the deterioration of democracy worldwide. But back when I knew Weiss, he was an editor, and I writer, at a collegiate humor magazine. Since then, his career has taken a decidedly more serious turn. Now a national security expert at CNN, Weiss has spent years reporting on some of the most complex conflicts on the planet, from the entanglements of the Putin regime to the rise of the Islamic State, on which he reported partly from Syria. In 2016, he co-wrote, with the journalist Hassan Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, which was praised by The New York Times Sunday Book Review as “the most serious book-length study of the Islamic State to be published so far.”

Weiss, a native of New York City, recently reported from a conflict zone all too close to home: the bike lane alongside Manhattan’s West Side Highway, where a terrorist killed nine people. We spoke shortly thereafter.

What could we have done to stop the Manhattan truck attack?

Unfortunately, these kinds of attacks are almost impossible to stop. Everybody knows how to drive a car, and there's nothing inherently suspicious about going to an auto rental shop and renting a car. And what this reflects, on the part of ISIS, is a realization that the age of the jihadist spectacular, which is to say a 9/11 style attack, is probably behind us.

I was surprised to hear, during a press conference, that [law enforcement officials] had gone around to all these car rental shops and tried to find out if anybody had been engaged in suspicious activity. But, what is suspicious activity? One could argue, and I think the political right would, that a guy who looks like [suspected Manhattan attacker Sayfullo] Saipov — you know, long black beard — turning up at a car rental place should ring alarm bells. But private enterprises are going to rent cars to people who look like they could be Southern Baptist investment bankers, or imams, or rabbis, or whatever. You’re not gonna be able to force private companies to stop lending vehicles to people who have valid driver’s licences and clean traffic records.

The frequency with which [similar attacks] are going to be mounted is the problem.

What can law enforcement do to stop someone from running over people in a car? The crudeness and quotidian nature of these attacks is the whole point: anyone can wage them.  

The other side of this equation though, is how do you minimize the threat and appeal of ISIS's ideology? There's a misconception here that once ISIS is defeated as a quasi-state, as a caliphate, and it returns to its natural state of being an insurgency, that somehow all these foreign attacks are going to stop.

And the evidence for that is actually the opposite. As they lose ground, we are seeing an uptick in foreign operations. So, they're not going away.

President Trump has said he wants to be tougher. Is that, to you, the right approach?

What does that mean, being tougher? Bombing the shit out of ISIS is not going to make these things go away. We are bombing the shit out of ISIS. So, I don't see that as being the fix.

America needs to enhance its credibility and its reputation in the region. It needs to be seen not as a force for dispossession and aerial-bombardment campaigns. There was a lot of good capital lost at the beginning of the Syria crisis by us not doing more to support or protect the populations that had risen up against [Syrian president Bashar] Assad.

And people hate America. They think America was in some conspiratorial plot to do all of this because we're a superpower and frankly, we did little-to-nothing to stop Assad from barrel bombing, gassing and rocketing the Syrian people. And now we’re “de-conflicting” with him and his allies, Russia and Iran.

If anything, we create an opportunity for our enemies to seize more ground, and for them to expand their hegemony. And the result of that tends to be greater human rights abuses, more proxy wars, more sectarianism, and these things have a nasty habit of coming back to bite us in the ass.

Trump might say that all of what you are saying is sort of political correctness. The politically correct approach to Islam, radical Islam, is what got us here.

I'm not somebody who discounts the role of Islam in Islamic terrorism. I'm not somebody who shies away from using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” or “Islamist terrorism.” I mean, Islamism is an academically accepted term. And I think that people are a little too afraid to address these things head-on because an honest discussion is easily hijacked by demagogues and bigots. So I do think people have been too politically correct in their discourse. To me, the ultimate irony here is when you go to Jordan or Turkey or to other parts of the Middle East, these things aren't even up for debate. Islamism, jihadism, radicalization— these are concepts that security services in the region have been dealing with long before we had 9/11, and no one has time to get the vapors about whether or not you’re being progressive enough in framing things.

So in that respect, maybe the president has a point. But he fails to understand that fighting terrorism isn’t as easy as bloviating about it on cable news – and it’s certainly more complicated than inserting special forces into a desert or bringing in F-18s. It comes down to politics and the human condition. You cannot defeat an enemy without having allies. Especially when the enemy is coming from a part of the world that you don't understand, that you don't live in, and whose language you do not speak. So we need allies. And unfortunately for Mr. Trump, those allies happen to be Muslim. And if he is out to portray this as a civilizational struggle, he will get one.

Is there anyone in the current administration who understands what you just said?

Yes. And they understand it better than I. The problem is they are not ascendent, or they do not have the ear of the president. At least not yet.  

[Breitbart News executive chairman and former White House chief political strategist] Steve Bannon has a very dark, Manichean view of the world. And it's essentially the one that you see portrayed on Fox News, which, within the last 24 hours, assailed my colleague Jake Tapper for saying that “Allah-Akbar” can be used under rather benign, or even beautiful circumstances. I mean, “Allah-Akbar” is a phrase all Muslims use, so are you saying that all Muslims are inherently evil? If you are, well then I got bad news for you: Apart from being a bigot, you're gonna lose this war. The right wants to have it both ways, to demonize the practitioners of a faith while asking them to help them get their affairs in order. Good luck with that. [Former Trump advisor and frequent Fox News guest] Sebastian Gorka, who is, as far as I can tell, a know-nothing and a fraud, is an exponent of this line of thinking.

But no, there are people in the administration who understand that. It's just a question of what does the president want to do? The president, I don't think, has the intellectual capacity or curiosity to understand this. For him, it's just about destroying ISIS and going home.

You don't sound very optimistic.

Look, I'm optimistic in the sense that it's Halloween 2017. A guy gets into a rental truck, he mows over and kills eight people and injures 12 more. But, New York is not crippled with fear, it's not traumatized, it's not weeping and flying the American flag just as sort of a feeble gesture of whole-ness. It's carrying on with its life. The Halloween parade in Greenwich Village commences as always. There was a Halloween party in the lobby of my building, and people seemed not oblivious to what had just happened, but inured enough to not allow it to destroy them.

What this means is, America is in it for a long war. If you're gonna be fighting a long war, you learn how to make an accommodation with the brute reality and with the conditions of that war. Londoners were laughing and serving one another tea in the Underground during the Blitz.

You mentioned these attacks Gorka and Sean Hannity have been leveling at your colleague, Jake Tapper. Why do you think they're doing that?

Well, it's cynicism first and foremost. And I think Fox News has branded itself as the straight-shooting, anti-PC, anti-elite network, a megaphone for the populism that got Donald Trump elected president. And so, in the immediate wake of an Islamist terror attack, it is easy to assail people for trying to say, look, we mustn't blame all Muslims, and we should appreciate that this is a minority within a minority perpetrating these dastardly deeds. But, the worst thing that we can do as a society and as a government is lash out at an entire faith.

For Fox News, it's all about Islam. Islam is the enemy, and Muslims are basically agents of chaos, within and without America. And that is going to appeal to a certain constituency that feels that it's been had, and that it's been lied to.

This has been sobering.

I'm never an optimist. I'm not even a glass half empty kind of guy. I'm a glass is broken and shattered on the floor and your carpet's wet kind of guy.

You were once a humor magazine editor ...

Yeah, but what is humor? Good humor is about seeing the folly and discord in the world and laughing at it rather than crumpling like a wet sock. Not trafficking in happy platitudes and saying everything is gonna be just okay because it probably isn’t and we’re all going to die anyway. Look, let's not beat around the bush here and call it like it is, Trump-style: I'm a New Yorker.