President Barack Obama spoke from the Oval Office on Dec. 6 to calm an allegedly frightened American public about what even he called a “new phase” in the struggle against terrorists in the Middle East and at home. The problem is the threat really isn’t new, nor are the policies Obama proposes to counter them.

While the public fears Obama addressed were set off by a mass shooting in California and amplified by presidential politics, the sad truth is terrorists have been targeting America for more than 14 years. Mass shootings, whatever their motivation, have become all too common.

At this point in the investigation, the San Bernardino killers — Tafsheen Malik and Syed Farook — have not been linked to a terrorist network. They are like the Tsarnaev brothers, who bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013: Radicalized by the Internet, operating on their own, killing innocents in the name of their cause. Lone wolves, inspired and instructed by media.

It’s a phenomenon we’ve been hearing about for years, and it didn’t start with ISIS. Nor are lone wolf terrorist attacks unique to Islamic radicals. Robert Dear, the man who executed a similar attack at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic, was a lone wolf too. He acted on his own, but was inspired, apparently, by media. Dylann Storm Roof was also a lone wolf. He decided on his own to go to a church prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, where he killed nine people, but he was inspired by websites of white supremacist groups.

When we talk about domestic terrorism we should keep all these acts in mind. The difference between crimes and acts of war must not be the religion of the people who built the bombs and pulled the triggers.

How do you fight a war against lone wolves? Do you go after the sources of inspiration – websites, social or mass media through which ideology spreads? Do you monitor everyone’s communications and go after any who cross some threshold of dangerousness? Do you focus on rebutting the arguments of radicals in the digital square, or do you work on restricting their access to weapons?

Stopping them before they act is made difficult by the Constitutional protections we cherish. Those who would loosen those protections in the name of public safety must be specific about which parts of the Bill of Rights they propose to bend. Do we ignore the First Amendment’s promise of freedom of religion by targeting members of a particular faith for surveillance? Do we dilute its protection of online speech?
Must we revise the Second Amendment, which lets terrorists arm themselves? The Fourth Amendment, which is supposed to keep private communications out of the hands of the government? All of the above?

Those aren’t easy questions, which is why they are appropriate subjects for debate in a presidential campaign. Let us engage the issues without unjustified hysteria, and let us not accept bluster or platitudes as a substitute for answers.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at rholmes@wickedlocal.com.