Interviews September 2006

Endgaming the Terror War

James Fallows talks about the surprising strides we've made against al-Qaeda—and why declaring victory will make us safer

You write in the piece that recruitment of self-starter cells within the U.S. is thought to have failed so far. How do you reconcile this with recent reports that homegrown terrorism is on the rise?

It's another one of these partial-victory, partial-success stories. Compared with a few years ago, there is an increased threat of homegrown terrorism in the United States. (For perspective: there's also a threat of terrorism from right-wing fundamentalists, of the Timothy McVeigh variety; from enviro-extremists and anti-abortion extremists; from Luddites like the Unabomber; and several times a year from deranged teenagers who go into schools with guns.) But compared with most societies of Western Europe, there's less of a threat in the United States.

You also point out that Arab-Americans are far better assimilated than their European counterparts. Does this hold true for Muslim-Americans as well? Could it be true that the wealthiest, most assimilated Arab-Americans are in fact Christian? And if so, do you think this may alone explain the difference across the Atlantic?

The United States differs from much of Europe in that a larger share of "our" Arab-Americans are Christians, originally from Lebanon. But the best data I've seen indicates that Muslim-Americans as well are better assimilated than their counterparts in Europe. Also, we would expect this to be so, since—as all of the non-American experts I spoke with pointed out to me—the United States is simply more successful as an assimilation machine than is any part of Europe.

During the research process, what most inspired the change in your perspective/thesis?

When my wife and I first visited China 20+ years ago with our two elementary-school-aged sons, Chinese people would sometimes ask us, "Which is your favorite?" We'd try to explain how they both were number one in our eyes. Something similar is true of the reporter and his sources. They're each the most valuable, helpful, and interesting in my eyes! And, joking aside, reporters live or die by the willingness of others to talk with them, so I am deeply grateful to those who keep communicating with me.

What was more fun—the reporting or the writing?

Reporting is always fun; writing never is.

You're in Shanghai now and will be out of the country for a while. What will you miss most about the States?

Mike Fallows
Mike Fallows

In several "what have we done??" moments before we left D.C., my wife and I reminded ourselves that we were casting aside a very, very nice life there: friends of a lifetime's standing, close colleagues at work, daily routines and household setups that we had adjusted to exactly suit our preferences over the years. Tiny examples: the C&O Canal in D.C. is one of the world's best places to go for a run; I am a beer devotee and know where to get just the kinds I want at the best price in the greater Washington area; we had the world's best cat and had to find a home for him; and all that is to say nothing of being in frequent touch with our parents and children. (Our kids have to fend for themselves, but our cat Mike now has a wonderful new home.) I could go on. And we were trading this for a city of 18 million where we started out not knowing a single soul.

On the other hand, we've been through this kind of complete-uprooting experience before—when moving to Japan, Malaysia, Texas, Seattle, Berkeley, and during jaunts elsewhere—and have found it to be stimulating, enriching, and memorable after a while. We just haven't reached the "after a while" stage yet.

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Abigail Cutler is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.

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