It seems that no matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, this year’s presidential election is a bizarre one.
“This is the most unique election that we’ve certainly had in modern history,” remarked a bemused Andrew C. McCarthy.
Usually hesitant to make sweeping statements like that, McCarthy — a contributing editor and writer for the National Review who is receiving the Ben Hecht Award for Outstanding Journalism at the Greater Philadelphia Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) 2016 Gala on Sept. 15 — remembered the “tumultuous” presidential election in 1968, which gave him pause to make broad generalizations about this year’s election.
“But I don’t recall in my lifetime seeing an election where the two candidates are so unpopular with the public,” he said.
McCarthy, who has authored several books such as Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad and The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America, started his journalism career a little more than 10 years ago following a successful years-long stint as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Even before that, he worked for the U.S. Marshals Service in the Witness Protection Program while he was going to Columbia University for his undergraduate degree. He went to law school at night and worked at the U.S. attorney’s office during the day as an intern, and he was hired soon thereafter.
He got into law following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who was also a New York prosecutor, and following his own passion.
He became something of a household name in 1995 as he led the prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, otherwise known as the “Blind Sheik,” who helped orchestrate the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. Abdel Rahman and nine others were convicted, and future planned attacks were thwarted as a result of the investigation.
It’s a case that still affects McCarthy today.
“It was a life-altering thing to be asked to participate in because it was very different from any kind of law enforcement not only I but we had ever done,” he said. “We didn’t really have up until the World Trade Center was bombed any experience with systematic terrorism, international terrorism, where attacks on the U.S., on our home soil, were common. So we didn’t really have a legal architecture to deal with it, didn’t have a legal strategy to deal with it. … Over time, we started to realize it was more of a national security problem than a law enforcement problem.”
The aftermath of the Abdel Rahman case and the country’s response to the attacks are not dissimilar from what we are seeing today, he said.
“Ideologically, the threat was much different than what we were willing to acknowledge in the beginning,” he said. “The mistakes in the early ’90s are the same we’re making today.”
He worked in the field of national security for many years before switching gears and becoming a writer, which ended up being a way to blend his two biggest interests: writing and law.
“I get to do what I love to do and I have the rare privilege that many people don’t get of having a public platform to say what I think, rather than just say it to my friends or to the moon,” he laughed, “so it’s been a pretty good deal for me, I think.”
In addition to writing about politics and national security, he also frequently writes about Israel.
“I very strongly believe in supporting our only Western democratic ally in the world’s most threatening, troubling region,” he said, “but I also think it’s essential for the U.S. to show the world that we recognize who our friends are and act in an honorable way as far as our friends are concerned. And in Israel’s case, it’s not only a matter of doing the right thing by an ally, which derivatively helps us, it’s a fact of Israel’s survival.”
As far as Israel’s future depending on which candidate is next in the White House, he hopes that the next administration won’t focus as much on negotiations unless they really can be effective, which they haven’t been.
“They seem to think — and Obama in particular but the Bush administration did as well — ‘as long as we’re still talking, that’s a good thing,’” McCarthy said. “To my mind, if somebody’s taking a position that is barbaric, then talking to them is not a good thing because it signals to them that their barbarism is not unacceptable.”
While adding that he doesn’t want to make it a political issue as it’s a “bipartisan problem,” what he worries about with Israel and its relationship with the United States is that there has been perhaps some lenience on Washington’s part with Palestinian leaders when it comes to peace talks, and there are two rules everyone at the negotiation table should follow.
“One is, acknowledge the right of the party you’re negotiating with to exist because you can’t have a sensible negotiation where one side will be happy with nothing less than the destruction of the other side,” he explained, “and you can’t have people make their way to the negotiation table by terrorism. If we had stuck with those two very basic rules we’d be much further along than we are now.”
In regard to recent developments in the United States in countering terrorism, he isn’t so supportive.
With the recent observance of the 15th year since the 9/11 attacks and with threats today like the Islamic State, “we’re in the most dangerous time terrorism-wise that we’ve ever been in notwithstanding that some people seem to think we’re in better shape than 15 years ago,” he said. “The bottom line: If you compare where we are today to where we were right before 9/11, today we have double the problem.”
If jihadists had time and space, he said, “they will attack the West and Western interests and they’ve now got more time and space than they’ve ever had, so to me that’s double the threat.”
Through his writing, McCarthy inadvertently got involved with the ZOA, and is “floored” to be honored at its gala.
“I’ve been very pro-Israel in my legal-slash-national-security career and as a writer,” he said, “so I guess I have, without intending to ally with any organization in particular, had natural alliances with ZOA over the years because I feel very strongly from a policy perspective in what they support as their basic mission, and as a result over the years, we found ourselves on the same side [on] a lot of security questions.”
McCarthy will deliver a keynote address at the ZOA gala. Tickets are available at philly.zoa.org.
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