On Monday, an Ohio State University student named Abdul Razak Ali Artan wrote an angry note on Facebook, rammed his car into a group of pedestrians on campus, and then was fatally shot by a police officer as he began charging his victims with a knife. Mercifully, Artan did not manage to kill anyone before his attack was halted, but this fresh case of what appears to be lone-wolf terrorism offers yet another occasion for reexamining America's flailing approach to counter-terrorism.
For the last 15 years, conventional political wisdom has dictated that an aggressive foreign policy marked by preemptive military interventions and lengthy nation-building commitments and paired with a Constitution-trampling surveillance state is the best way to contain and prevent terror. But with some $12 trillion already promised or spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and nothing to show for it—not to mention the debacle in Libya and the diverse other stagnating or even counterproductive interventions the U.S. presently maintains in Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and beyond—that argument becomes increasingly difficult to take seriously.
Indeed, it is now impossible to avoid the conclusion that government invasions of our privacy amount to worthless security theater, while these overseas adventures do little or nothing to prevent lone-wolf attacks. Individuals like Artan, who seems to have had no real contact with the Islamic State (ISIS), are lost in the "haystack" of digital data the feds collect, and they are mostly unaffected by the fortunes of the Mideast militants they admire. Whether ISIS controls vast swathes of territory or is eradicated entirely makes no practical difference to this new sort of terrorist, who needs little to no resources or logistical assistance to carry out his dastardly plot.
If anything, the evidence suggests U.S. intervention against ISIS may inspire more lone wolves like Artan to attack. "[ISIS] is clearly weakened on the ground, but the nature of the losses it is suffering has strengthened its legitimacy among certain segments of the Sunni world," wrote Foreign Policy's Hassan Hassan in the wake of the far deadlier lone-wolf attack in Florida this past summer. "This is a trend that should be of grave concern to U.S. officials," he added, "as the group's continuing support could lay the groundwork for its eventual resurgence—and more lone wolf attacks like the one in Orlando."
In other words, tangling with America gives ISIS legitimacy even when it loses, and the fact of reckless, large-scale U.S. military intervention seems to concede that this is a fight ISIS (and the homegrown murderers it inspires) really could win.
That such a victory is preposterous does not occur to deluded would-be terrorists—and so far, neither has the necessity to reevaluate America's ineffective and imprudent counter-terrorism policy occurred to the Washington establishment. "What the United States is trying to do by stubbornly sticking with such policies to force a failing square-peg solution into a nonbudging round-hole problem," argues Ret. Lt. Col. Daniel Davis at The National Interest. "Clearly," he continues, in "spending hundreds of billions of dollars and sacrificing the lives of thousands of U.S. service members in an effort to fight terror 'over there,' we are succeeding only in spreading the conflagration abroad and increasingly suffering terror attacks at home."
Rather than maintaining this ineffective, feckless interventionism, we would do well to let attacks like Artan's occasion a serious reconsideration of the "war on terror" as we know it today, which amounts to throwing lives and dollars down the drain with no real impact on American security. Lone wolves aren't going away any time soon and they are no easy problem to address, but we can begin by refusing to waste precious resources on misguided interventions that do more harm than good.