Fighting Terror by Self-Reproach
By Bret Stephens
Wall Street Journal
December 7, 2015
Nobody who watched Barack
Obama’s speech Sunday night outlining his strategy to defeat Islamic State
could have come away disappointed by the performance. Disappointment presupposes
hope for something better. That ship sailed, and sank, a long time ago.
By now we are familiar with the
cast of Mr. Obama’s mind. He does not make a case; he preaches a moral. He
mistakes repetition for persuasion. He does not struggle with the direction,
details or trade-offs of policy because he’s figured them all out. His
policies never fail; it’s our patience that he finds wanting. He asks not what
he can do for his country but what his country can do for him.
And what’s that? It is for us to
see what has long been obvious to him, like an exasperated teacher explaining
simple concepts to a classroom of morons. Anyone? Anyone?
That’s why nearly everything the
president said last night he has said before, and in the same shopworn phrases.
His four-point strategy for defeating ISIS is unchanged. His habit of telling
us—and our enemies—what he isn’t going to do dates back to the earliest
days of his presidency. His belief that terrorism is another gun-control issue
draws on the deep wells of liberal true belief. His demand for a symbolic
congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force is at least a year old,
though as recently as 2013 he was demanding that Congress kill the AUMF
altogether. Back then he was busy boasting that al Qaeda was on a path to
The more grating parts of Mr.
Obama’s speech came when he touched on the subject of Islam and Muslims. “We
cannot,” he intoned, “turn against one another by letting this fight be
defined as a war between America and Islam.” Terrorism, as he sees it, is to
be feared less for the harm it causes than for the overreaction it risks
This is the president as master of
the pre-emptive self-reproach—the suggestion that Americans are always on the
verge of returning to the wickedness whence we came. But since when have we
turned against one another, or defined the war on terror as a war on Islam?
Syed Rizwan Farook, a heavily
bearded and openly devout Muslim, was a county employee in good standing with
his colleagues who didn’t raise an eyebrow until he and his foreign bride
opened fire in San Bernardino. The first 48 hours of the investigation amounted
to a nationwide flight from the obvious, a heroic exercise in cultural
sensitivity and intellectual restraint, as every motive except for jihad was
mooted as a potential explanation for mass murder. Had Farook’s wife not sworn
allegiance to ISIS moments before the attack, we might still be debating whether
an act of Islamist terrorism had really happened.
On Sunday the Italian newspaper La
Stampa carried an interview with Farook’s father, also named Syed. “My son
said that he shared [ISIS leader Abu Bakr] Al Baghdadi’s ideology and
supported the creation of Islamic State,” the elder Farook told correspondent
Paolo Mastrolilli. “He was also obsessed with Israel.”
The father went on to explain that
he had tried to reason with his son by saying that Israel would no longer exist
in a couple of years and that the Jews would soon be returning to Ukraine, so
there was no need to take up arms for jihad. “But he did not listen to me, he
Now the Farook family professes
utter shock at what’s happened. How can they be shocked? How did we become a
society in which a son tells his father that he supports ISIS and it fails to
register with this ostensibly integrated Muslim family, living the American
dream, that perhaps a call to the FBI would be appropriate?
Here’s how we became that
society: By pretending that the extreme branch of Islam to which Farook plainly
belonged is a protected religion rather than a dangerous ideology. By supposing
that it is somehow immoral to harbor graver reservations about 10,000 refugees
from Syria or Iraq than, say, New Zealand. By being so afraid to give moral
offense that we neglect to play the most elementary form of defense.
If you see something, say
something, goes the ubiquitous slogan. But heaven help you if what you see and
say turns out to be the wrong something—an alarm clock, for instance, as
opposed to a bomb.
This is President Obama’s vision
of society, and it is why he delivered this sterile, scolding homily that
offered no serious defense against the next jihadist massacre. We have become a
country that doesn’t rouse itself to seriousness except when a great many
people are murdered. Fourteen deaths apparently isn’t going to move the policy
needle, as far as this president is concerned. Will 1,400?