President Obama’s speech the other night on the terrorist threat was not intended to be brawny, political showmanship. Instead, it did what it intended and that is, at a minimum, what a president should do: show leadership in addressing the American public in times of crisis.
Today’s terrorism message is delivered with the aid of technology and carried by soldiers indoctrinated without ever having to physically attend a single terrorist training camp. We’re dealing with thugs. America, as Obama reminded the nation, will not be cowed.
The somewhat placid manner in which the president delivered that message has been predictably criticized by Republican presidential candidates. It was probably easy to take issue with whatever the lame-duck president of the opposing party had to say, and strongly imply an ability to do better. Sound better, at least.
Still, tone matters, and it would have been helpful had the president made a more forceful speech, with at least a call for vigilance. There was room for that – to deliver something more than Obama’s detached cool but less than George W. Bush’s cowboy provocations.
But these are difficult times, and as a recent attack by a married couple in San Bernardino, Calif., showed, the war against terrorism requires creative tactics against an elusive enemy. Almost certainly, more people are living in this country who secretly harbor ill will.
The San Bernardino rampage, in which 14 people were killed, marked the first time that terrorists inspired by the Islamic State had been successful in a mission of death and destruction in the United States. Sadly, that awful event did not mark the first time terrorism struck this country.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in which 3,000 Americans were killed remains as this nation’s 21st century day of infamy. But there are other incidents in which the terrorists were grown right here; Timothy McVeigh, a Niagara County native, and the Boston Marathon bombers, who were born elsewhere but emigrated to this country in 2002, come to mind. And there have been mass killings; the shooting at Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood is still fresh on people’s minds and hearts.
Obama needed to talk to Americans about what everyone else is talking about around the water cooler. No, he did not break new ground or divulge any new strategies on fighting terrorism, nor would that have been wise.
He promised an intensification of airstrikes against the Islamic State, and discussed a growing coalition of nations and the push to capture and kill Islamic State leaders. Just as important was his message that these attacks should not be an excuse to discriminate against Muslims.
“We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam,” the president said. Wise words that should be heeded, but unfortunately are being ignored by some Republican presidential candidates.
Obama’s call for tougher screening of travelers coming to this country without visas should happen and without delay, as should his request to Congress to ban gun sales to people on the government’s no-fly list, which really ought to be a matter of common sense, although for some it is a politically unpalatable limit on assault weapons.
The objective of the president’s speech was to calm people. Questions remain whether that was accomplished.
Still, the nation needs to remain vigilant just as during the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It means staying alert but not giving in to terrorism by abandoning what makes America great: freedom to live.