Sunday night, President Obama delivered a nationwide address from the Oval Office in the wake of the latest American mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. It begs the question: Why was the mass shooting different from all other mass shootings?
The distinction, of course, lies in the extraordinary thrall to which Americans continue to hold the threat of terrorism.
While the San Bernardino killers appear to have been inspired by ISIS and thus have been branded terrorists, how they differ from other radicalized mass shooters — like Robert Dear, who shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs last month, or Dylann Roof, who was radicalized by white supremacy and killed nine people in a church in Charleston — is unclear.
Indeed, there’s no evidence to date that the Islamic State had anything to do with the attack in San Bernardino.
What unites all the mass shootings that have become a depressingly regular feature of modern American life is the tool utilized — a legally obtained handgun or assault rifle. The motive for San Bernardino may intersect with radical jihadism, placing it in the same league as the Boston Marathon bombings and Fort Hood, but it is the means by which the massacre was carried out that is most familiar.
If the killers were a set of disaffected Americans, angry at the world, radicalized by an ideology or belief system not related to Islam, one can imagine the response would have been the same as those after other mass shootings. There’d be the usual angry and polarized debate about gun control — leading to no congressional action. There’d be a few calls for better mental health screening and maybe some focus on the specific motive of this particular shooter. And then everyone would move along to the next story . . . until the inevitable next mass shooting and the cycle repeats itself again.
But even 14 years after 9/11 — even though jihadist-inspired terrorists take fewer American lives every year than lightning and falling televisions — any hint of ties to radical jihadism demands a forceful response (just not on guns). Above all, it demands a change in strategy to defeat ISIS, even though few of the people demanding this change can even articulate the current strategy or suggest any better alternative.
The latter is hardly surprising, since there simply is no better strategy for defeating ISIS. Over the past year, the United States and coalition forces have flown more than 8,000 bombing missions in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State has seen its territorial gains reversed; it’s lost a quarter of its territory since the summer, including several major cities that have been recaptured by Kurdish forces.
There are also reports that the influx of new jihadist recruits is beginning to dry up and that ISIS’s governance is beginning to fall apart. Though it received little attention at the time, a recent story in The New York Times on the tales being reported by those who have escaped the Islamic State is worthy of note:
“[The] statehood project is now in distress, perhaps more so than at any other time since the Islamic State began seizing territory in Iraq and Syria, according to a range of interviews with people who have recently fled. Under pressure from airstrikes by several countries, and new ground offensives by Kurdish and Shi’ite militias, the jihadists are beginning to show the strain.
“Some fighters have taken pay cuts, while others have quit and slipped away. Important services have been failing because of poor maintenance. And as its smuggling and oil businesses have faltered, the Islamic State has fallen back on ever-increasing taxes and tolls imposed on its squeezed citizens.”
If anything, the attacks last month in Paris and Sinai are an indication that ISIS is on the defensive, losing ground in Iraq and Syria, under continued aerial bombardment, and instead is now relying on cheaper, but still deadly, attacks to demonstrate its strength.
Quite simply, the US-led effort is slowly but surely beginning to garner positive results on the ground, even if it may be years away from victory and its success will rely on the willingness of those on the ground in Iraq and Syria to win the fight.
That, however, is a more complicated story than the one being demanded of President Obama.
Since the president was unable to wave a magic wand and make the trumped up threat from ISIS go away, his speech was destined to disappoint — and also because, in a society awash in guns, there’s no magic wand to prevent the next mass shooting, whether inspired by radical Islam or not.
There is, however, a way to make these shootings less likely to occur and less deadly (though never eliminate them altogether) — gun control measures that keep deadly weapons out of the hands of potential killers. We don’t even need a magic wand to make that happen; just a modicum of political will.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.