The President and terrorism

President Obama addressed the US people last night in prime time.  A nation shaken by the attack in San Bernardino needed to hear from its leader, wanted to know that he was going to do something, and craved assurances that they were safe.

It was obvious before the President began his speech that many would disagree with whatever he said.  Politics is so divisive and polarised in the US that it is a wonder anything gets done.  And if the Republican presidential nominee campaign tells us anything, all this will get much worse.

But, returning to the President’s remarks, was what he said good or not vis-a-vis our response to terrorism?  Well, let’s take it apart.

  • he rightly said that to date there is nothing to link the two assailants to any group, but clearly added that they had been radicalised: true and true
  • he called it an act of terrorism: by any definition (and there are dozens – see my next blog) this is true
  • he noted that the US has been at war with terrorism since 9/11.  True but not helpful. We have to stop calling this a ‘war’.  Wars against common nouns never end.
  • he said terrorism has shifted since 9/11 from large attacks to smaller ones.  Kinda true, although the combination of big and small has always been there.  In some ways 9/11, through its sheer scale, was an anomaly, the exception and not the rule
  • he noted that terrorism is serious but that “we” will win.  I think this means that terrorism is not so great as to pose an existential threat, and if so I agree with him
  • we do not need tough talk and the undermining of our values – thank you for saying this sir.  Talk is cheap and abandoning what we stand for means we have lost.  We cannot give in to fear.
  • we need to be strong and smart.  I am not hearing much that is intelligent in the US chattering class these days
  • he mentioned training local forces and using US special troops: the former has been disastrously ineffective; the latter is a very good idea as it minimises “boots  on the ground” that alienate occupied populations and only serves to create the next generation of terrorism
  • intelligence sharing has surged – this is a good thing
  • the US is working with American and other Muslims to counter the IS message.  The results are not good and I have long argued that we need to ignore the IS narrative and tell our own
  • he spoke of progress in resolving the Syrian conflict.  This is a good and necessary goal but will not eliminate terrorism
  • he called on Americans to work together and challenged Congress to take action on assault weapons – why is this so hard to understand?
  • the President rejected a long, protracted ground war, and said we need to avoid talking of a war between the US and Islam – good.  He also called for working with Muslims, although he noted that these must reject  the terrorist message and those whose values go against American ones.  This is more difficult, although I agree with it in principle.  What are “American values”?  Some are obvious – democracy, rule of law, gender equality (extremists reject all these by the way and they must be shouted down when they do so).  But what about same-sex rights, abortion, gun ownership?  There are lots of people who have nothing to do with IS that vehemently oppose the first two and promote the last one.  Which of these constitutes “American values”?  Conservative Muslims and Christians believe that their faith mandates denying same-sex marriages.  Is one extreme and the other not?  The protection of American values could get heated.
  • he rightfully stated that we cannot choose refugees and immigrants based on religion.  The US has an ugly history of rejecting certain groups – Irish Catholics in the 19th century and the Jews in the lead up to WWII.  Do we really want to go down that path again?

This president has been criticised for his cool detachment?  At a time like this a man with this character is exactly what we need, not blather, invective and hate.  Are you listening Mr. Trump?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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