Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.
The sort of people who watch cable news coverage of terrorism 24/7 seem to think it’s your patriotic duty to run around with your hair on fire. It’s the American Way.
Following the latest mass shooting event in San Bernardino, California, President Obama gave a nationally televised address from the Oval Office. Because last week’s killers were a husband and wife team of deranged Muslims instead of the stereotypical lone male demento, the White House sought to offer reassurance.
As is his custom, Obama expressed calm determination.
“The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it,” he vowed. “We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us. Our success won’t depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values, or giving into fear. That’s what groups like ISIL are hoping for. Instead, we will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless.”
Among much of the electorate, however, calm and resilient have gone out of fashion. Overstimulated by a presidential race resembling a WWE promotion, they look for something along the lines of professional wrestling extravaganza, with heroes, villains, vainglorious boasting, and hyperbolic threats.
The affiliation between Donald J. Trump and World Wrestling Entertainment head honcho Vince McMahon has been previously noted here. Indeed, the portly GOP candidate with the flowing hair has participated in WWE spectacles with former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali—to name just one Muslim-American athlete he was unable to recall after Obama’s speech. (Trump has also conducted a one-sided public feud with former NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.)
Trump himself, however, was very far from the only GOP hopeful to respond to Obama’s speech with bombast. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, ex-commander of the Princeton University debate team, vowed to “utterly destroy” ISIS as president.
Remember “Shock and Awe”? Like that. “We will carpet bomb them into oblivion,” Cruz promised. “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”
Is he really threatening to nuke ISIS’s ragtag “caliphate”?
And then what? Re-occupy Iraq? Syria? With whose army? For how long? The senator needn’t say. It’s simply a pose.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio thinks Americans aren’t frightened enough. He told a Fox News audience that “people are scared not just because of these attacks but because of a growing sense that we have a president that’s completely overwhelmed by them.”Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also ran to a Fox News studio to denounce “the idea that somehow there are radical elements in every religion” as “ridiculous,” an argument Obama never made. Indeed the president’s GOP detractors spoke as if confident their intended audience had no clue what his speech actually said — probably a good bet.
To Bush, as to all the rest, the president’s failure to pronounce the words “radical Islamic terrorism” has left the nation undefended. This odd bit of magical thinking has become an article of faith on the right.
This obsession with the phrase “radical Islam” puzzles me. Why if only Obama had uttered the magical trope, it seems, a bespectacled duck resembling Groucho Marx would have descended from the ceiling with a crisp new $100 bill, throwing ISIS terrorists into disarray.
Oops, wrong TV show. And yes, I’m showing my age. On Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life everything depended on guests accidentally pronouncing the secret word.
But yes, of course Obama has resisted saying that the U.S. is at war with Islam. So did George W. Bush, Kevin Drum points out, “and for good reason: he wanted all the non-terrorist Muslims in the world to be on our side. Why is this so hard to understand?”
Basically because everything is hard to understand for Fox News initiates emotionally committed to binary thinking: good vs. evil, white vs. black, Christian vs. Islamic, etc. After all, this is pretty much the same crowd that Trump has spent years persuading that President Obama’s a foreign-born imposter of suspect loyalty. Counting higher than two strikes them as decadent, a sign of weakness.
Along with his race and his suspect parentage, it’s precisely Obama’s resistance to melodrama that makes this crowd think he’s weak.
“ISIL does not speak for Islam,” Obama insisted. “They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world—including millions of patriotic Muslim Americans who reject their hateful ideology…”
“That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities,” the president added. “This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.”
Far from weakness, it’s precisely because he sees America and Americanism as infinitely stronger than ISIS that Obama retains the moral authority to speak such hard truths.
Led by Trump, Republican blowhards have thrown it away.
Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks after arriving in his helicopter as a group of children race towards it for ride during a rally in Sarasota, Florida November 28, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Audette