“We need to be smart, vigilant and tough,” Donald Trump tweeted soon after the horrible terror attack in London on and close to the London Bridge. Even though an occasional hint of compassion for the victims would sometimes be a nice gesture as well, the U.S. president was undoubtedly right in substance. This terror attack, the second in England within two weeks, and the third within three months, puts a lot of pressure on the psyche of Western countries.
(Granted, that psyche is a bit selective, when 90 dead in Kabul were only worth one day of news coverage (and no tweet), and when stabbings by a man named Christian in peaceful Portland, Oregon, are, unlike the attacks committed by Muslims, viewed as an unfortunate isolated event.)
Unfortunately, smart, vigilant and tough is exactly what the president’s reaction was not. Rather, his response was the opposite: unbelievably stupid, extremely careless, and ridiculously weak.
Stupid first. Despite the constant droning that wants to suggest otherwise, terrorism, including that in London, is a strategy, not an ideology. The attackers’ main goal, we must presume, was not to kill seven and injure more than 40. That is a large number for a terrorist attack—between 1990 and 2015, no more than 90 people were killed in terror attacks in the UK—but still a relatively small number of people compared to other causes of death. For comparison, each week, the UK sees 35 deaths and almost 500 serious injuries from traffic accidents.
No, the main goal of terrorism is what its name suggests: to create terror. And Trump gives the attackers so precisely what they want from him that even Putin must be jealous. He lets fear get the better of him. He lashes out on twitter, unhinged. And he works very hard at conveying that fear to us, too, by tweeting in panic. The smart thing and this is almost too obvious to write, would have been not to play into the terrorists’ hands. But Trump appears unable to even understand that.
Was he at least vigilant, by emphasizing again the need for his travel ban? If only. In the United States, like in the United Kingdom, most terror attacks are committed by citizens born and raised in the country. If indeed the London attackers were led by ISIS, they could be radicalized at home, or reached through the internet. And in order to drive cars into people (what a dreadfully unheroic method!) they do not need to visit training camps in Afghanistan; they can read the instructions in ISIS’s glossy magazine. In this regard, Theresa May’s threat to regulate the internet more thoroughly has, despite its obvious downside, at least a hint of credibility.
“Trump looks exactly like the kind of man ISIS must want in the Oval Office: Stupid, careless, and weak.”
Of course, Trump would never dare to interfere with the economic and political forces that support internet freedom. Instead he caters to anti-Muslim sentiment. But it is still not vigilant to ban entrants from Iran, from where none of the recent attackers in the United States came. What could be vigilant would be, for example, to reconsider relations with Saudi Arabia, which we must still suspect to be supporting terrorists, and which beheads people in a manner eerily similar to the preferred way of ISIS. Its role in the terror attacks may remain unknown if the UK Home Office sticks to its decision not to publish a recent report. Trump, of course, does not care about such niceties. It has only been days since he used the Saudi Arabian stage, of all places, to declare a fight against extremism, and he praised a huge weapons deal with the country as good for American jobs.
Most remarkable, however, is how unbearably weak Trump is proving to be in the face of terror attacks. A model of strength is London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who urged Londoners and visitors “to be calm and vigilant.” Theresa May, who has an election to win (or, increasingly less improbably, to lose), has managed slightly less well to remain her calm: her promise to step up the fight against Islamist terrorism stands in unexplained contrast to her recently announced plans to reduce police forces.
Trump beat her. He decided that the best response was to ridicule Sadiq Khan, only hours after promising that the United States would do whatever it can to “help out in London and the U.K. Moreover, and incomprehensibly, he blamed political correctness. This is bizarre. Nobody in England is defending the terrorists, just as nobody in World War II excused the Blitzkrieg with the Nazis’ difficult childhood. Instead, the now famous motto “Keep calm and carry on,” although itself apparently not used during the war, represented a deliberate strategy to resist the Nazis’ attempts of demoralizing Londoners through carpet bombing. That strength provided one important step towards the later victory.
Whatever else one may think of Winston Churchill, England’s leader in World War II, he proved indeed to be what Trump demands now: smart, vigilant, and tough. Churchill is a role model for the President, though not apparently for these characteristics. Trump, still the TV celebrity that he will always be, has been reported to practice frowning so he could look more like Churchill. He need not bother, he never will. He looks exactly like the kind of man ISIS must want in the Oval Office: stupid, careless, and weak, prone to give the terrorists what they hope for. That is, perhaps, the most frightening lesson from the terror attacks.