At a moment when Americans can be excused for being worried about public safety but confused about what exactly to worry about most, President Obama made a confusing speech from the Oval Office. Whatever the intentions of the primetime address were, there was no clear and obvious message for the audience.
The president’s speech unfortunately illustrated the muddled, illogical and overly emotional ways that the threats of terrorism, ISIS and domestic gun violence are being discussed and debated in this season of campaigning. The speech may well have marginally added to the confusion, though it probably wasn’t even that consequential.
Perhaps the president was merely trying to reassure the nation in some vague way after the disturbing slaughters in Paris and San Bernardino. But it isn’t clear that was even necessary. Polls do show that worries about terrorism spiked a little after Paris; they always do after a major incident – and they always return to a baseline level that has changed very little since 9/11.
It is true that several of the Republican candidates have embraced the roles of fear monger. In ways that harken back to the Red Scare and McCarthyism of the 1950s, the demagogues would have us think terrorists controlled by ISIS masterminds have infiltrated America. If the president was trying to correct this paranoid and cynical manipulation in his address, he should have been more clear and blunt. But perhaps that was not his intent.
Using the murders in San Bernardino as a moment to display a pragmatic program and the political resolve to succeed was doomed. First off, the president offered no new policies or actions and was honest that there are no panaceas or even options with high certainty of success. On a simpler level, the San Bernardino atrocity was a weird, anomalous event and the whole story still isn’t known. The nature of the crime and the reaction to it conflate and confound several distinct issues threads.
Terrorism vs. mass shooting
The press has different standard formulas for covering different kinds of incidents. Mass shootings trigger rounds of soul-searching about why America tolerates gun homicides like no other nation, futile rehashes of the gun control debate and portraiture of the “shooters” (why not murderers?) and victims. Acts of terror immediately launch the blame game. Which agency messed up? What dumb policies (fiancé visas, not inspecting footwear at airports) weren’t changed in time? What international terrorist mastermind wasn’t taken out in time?
But San Bernardino seems like a hybrid from what we know so far. Lots of mass murderers and homicidal lunatics have political, religious or conspiratorial delusions, missions or motives. Do we automatically label them as terrorists when there is no evidence they are part of an organization or plot? Usually not, unless they are Muslim.
‘Lone-wolf’ vs. organized terrorism
The difference between an act of “lone wolf” terrorism and terrorism carried out by an organization or cabal is extremely important. When an organization is involved, the odds of similar attacks are higher and there are more coherent approaches to prevention than with practically random “lone wolf” murders. Clearly, 9/11 was the result of a centrally organized plot. The Boston Marathon bombings were not.
The president did make this distinction in his speech. But it is probably time to use a new word for “lone wolf” mass killings. Calling them terrorism conflates two very different threats and problems.
Has ISIS itself actually planned and executed a terrorist attack in the United States? Probably the San Bernardino monsters were inspired by ISIS but not trained, controlled or assigned by ISIS – or anyone else. The idea that groups, radical figures and ideologies that inspire and incite terrorism can ever be eliminated is obviously ludicrous. Homo sapiens have always generated such societal tumors.
Al Qaeda was in the business of executing large-scale terrorism all over the world. ISIS has, from what we know now, a different mission. The goal is an Islamic caliphate; killing innocents in distant enemy lands appears to be tangential, a tactic perhaps, not a goal.
Obama did nothing to update and clarify us about precisely what kind of public safety threat ISIS – or any other Islamist group – poses to Americans in America right now.
ISIS threat in U.S.
Similarly, the president didn’t effectively describe what danger ISIS poses to the U.S. broadly or why the U.S. must expend more blood and treasure to fight it in Syria.
If the primary and most serious danger ISIS poses is geopolitical and humanitarian, it is confusing and misleading to portray it foremost as a threat to the safety of Americans. This is what Obama did in his Oval Office speech and it is what most of the Republicans do on the stump. It isn’t helpful. It isn’t callous to state the obvious fact that, statistically and practically, ISIS and foreign terrorism are far less important public safety problems than, say, car accidents, tornadoes and firearms homicides.
But really, the deep threat and import of ISIS is that it could further cripple the Mideast, one of the most broken, dangerous and volatile parts of the world. That could threaten U.S. allies and interests, build a new, enduring powerbase for Islamist terrorism and further commit humanitarian atrocities on a gigantic scale. The crucial question then is if the U.S. in concert with other nations can defeat ISIS without creating new and even worse problems.
There is no modern precedent for success in that region. That has constrained Obama throughout his administration. He should be praised for that and not belittled by demagogic presidential candidates and chicken hawks.
Justifying military action under the pretense of fighting terrorism that seriously threatens Americans is what George W. Bush did with Iraq. Obama should not ever flirt with such dishonesty. In his speech, he came close.
Finally, the president used the terrorism threat as yet another reason to tackle the easy availability of firearms arsenals. That won’t work and it conflates two very different sets of issues and political dysfunctions. There are plenty of reasons to deal with gun violence already.
One thing that is baffling to roughly 50 percent of Americans and most of the rest of the world, is why America is so willing to tolerate the risks of gun violence and the roughly 30,000 annual deaths from guns when it is so willing to tackle terrorism at most any cost – soldiers’ lives, privacy rights and taxpayers’ dollars. The events in San Bernardino revealed this stark and strange paradox vividly.
The obstacles President Obama faces in trying to provide reassuring but realistic leadership on the issues of global terrorism are daunting.
A large chunk of Republican primary voters, for example, believe or pretend to believe that their president is a closet Muslim who isn’t a legitimate American. He inherited what Americans were told was a war – the “war on terrorism.” But it isn’t a war; the enemies are not nations and armies but continuously morphing bands of warriors intoxicated by a potent medieval creed incomprehensible to the modern world. America’s prior military responses to it were disasters.
The president’s latest effort to find the right tone and posture wasn’t a success. It will be forgotten soon, if it hasn’t been already. Sadly, it won’t elevate the debate in the presidential election.
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