I agreed with opinions faulting Attorney General Loretta Lynch for releasing a transcript of the Orlando shooter’s 911 call that blacked out his statements of loyalty to the Islamic State. Lynch said she was trying to avoid giving him the propaganda juice he had been looking for.
But she was wrong to censor the transcripts, and critics were right when they followed up and took her task for thinking we can’t handle the truth.
Lynch corrected her error within hours. Score one for democracy, a free press and a vocal political opposition all at one stroke.
Too bad, then, that many also made the leap to sweep Lynch’s missteps into the same maelstrom that has been swirling for months over President Barack Obama’s refusal to use the words “radical Islamic terrorism.”
This obsession with his wording brings out the worst in our politics, and more importantly it weakens us when we should be at our strongest.
Obama has articulated his position well, and last week he did so in a passionate address that challenged his critics forcefully.
“The reason I am careful about with how I describe this threat has nothing to do with political correctness. But everything to do with defeating extremism … If we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply we are at war with an entire religion, then we are doing the terrorists’ work for them.”
I get that some see the president’s refusal to use the words as timidity in the face of a threat that keeps showing up on our shores, with lethal consequences. And it looks to me that his position has calcified into a kind of stubbornness that only invites more of the groundless attacks on his policy.
But groundless they are. And to fault him without understanding what he is reacting to isn’t telling the whole story, either.
Obama gets that Islam is not the enemy.
The president believes that to win this war against the Islamic State and other like-minded groups we need allies in the Middle East. That means we need Muslim nations on our side. Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan — each of these Muslim nations extend, to varying degrees, our strength in combating those who seek to do us harm. They help contain the threat or even just the influence of Iran.
In each of these countries are tens of millions of Muslims whose support is critical to us. They adhere to Islam, but do not believe as the terrorists do that murdering innocent people on train stations, airplanes, night clubs or in mass execution rings is in keeping with their faith. When they hear us talk about “Islamic terrorists” — radical or otherwise — they tend to wonder whether we’re at war with Muslims or just the terrorists.
Many Americans do not believe this. They believe — and the storm of comments I’ve received over the past few months give literal proof of this — that Islam itself is the problem. While Obama calls it, as he did last week, “a perversion of one of the world’s great religions,” they wonder what’s so great about Islam.
This lack of distinction is what has fueled support for Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim refugees from entering this country, for example. And it’s that same lack of distinction against which Obama’s choices about wording took shape. He was reacting to a tendency here to shift the focus away from terror and on Islam.
But this distinction is the same distinction Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush insisted upon in the days after the 9/11 attacks, and kept insisting upon for the rest of his term. Bush did eventually use the words radical Islam in describing the threat we face, but he did so in limited ways.
By the time Obama was deep into his presidency, he began to worry that Bush’s admonitions to distinguish between our enemies and the wider Muslim world had begun to be ignored. As a result he calibrated his language to reduce the emphasis on the role Islam plays in the minds of the enemies we face. This was wisdom.
What we fight is not a religion. We fight groups led by people who have used religion to organize and leverage power. There is nothing new about this. People who want to wage war need power, and they use what they can find — nationalism, Nazism, communism, religion and many other tools to be exploited. These things give power because they can be twisted to inspire adherents to make sacrifices they might not otherwise make, including in our present case suicide missions so indiscriminately deadly that they have the power to terrorize us even on our own shores.
This is dangerous stuff. But the enemy isn’t religion. Indeed, other Muslims are the chief targets and victims of the people with whom we are at war. This is such an obvious point that missing it seems intentional, or maybe just the result of blindness, but either way, missing it makes us weaker.
Stubborn? Yes. But his critics would make us less safe.
It’s fair point to note that in every standoff, both sides can be accused of being stubborn. All it takes is one side to accommodate the other and defuse the tension. But ask yourself, would Obama suddenly saying the three magic words suddenly convince his critics that he’s on the right track? Would it provide a building block for bipartisan support in our wars?
Of course not. His critics would just roll on to the other side of the teacup looking for a new tempest.
Meanwhile, the anti-Muslim prejudice that Obama is trying to counter remains deeply unfair to the millions of Americans who are at once targets of these radicals and madmen, as we all are, and Muslim.
But it is also a national security threat. It weakens our standing abroad with the very people we are most relying upon to help defeat those who are waging war on us.