DECEMBER 7, 2015
BY AMY DAVIDSON
President Barack Obama, speaking from the Oval Office on Sunday night.
CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY SAUL LOEB/GETTY
“So this was an act of terrorism, designed to kill innocent people,” President Barack Obama said near the beginning of his speech, delivered from the Oval Office on Sunday night, in response to the shooting in San Bernardino. Obama looked tired as he began, and the address, despite moments of real feeling, had a certain built-in weariness. When it comes to gun violence, the President believes—as he said last Wednesday, after Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed fourteen people with semi-automatic assault rifles that had been purchased legally, and said again last night—that there are very easy and effective things he could do to help if only Congress would let him, which it won’t. When it comes to terrorism, there are things that are very hard that he is nonetheless trying to do, he keeps telling people (“Since the day I took this office, I’ve authorized U.S. forces to take out terrorists abroad. … For over a year, I have ordered our military to take thousands of airstrikes” against the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham), even as politicians in both parties talk about destroying ISIS as if it were a matter of simple will, which Obama somehow lacked. This is particularly true of those running for President.
More strongly, Obama spoke about the positions that some politicians have found it easy or, rather, tempting, to push now and yet are dangerous or corrosive. “We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam,” he said. “If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.” He didn’t mention any of the Republican candidates by name, or refer directly to the Presidential race. But he did mention some of the rhetoric that has been bandied about regarding “religious tests on who we admit into this country” (Ted Cruz) and “proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently” (Donald Trump). Americans had a responsibility “to reject discrimination,” Obama said, “because when we travel down that road, we lose. … Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our coworkers, our sports heroes—and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that.”
At times, Obama seemed to be carrying out a dialogue with the conservatives who complain, with no factual basis, that he doesn’t believe America is exceptional. “Let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional. Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear,” he said. He also said that while ISIS did not “speak for” Islam—they were a tiny faction of “thugs and killers, part of a cult of death”; most of their victims were Muslim—there was no denying that “an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities.” He added, “This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.” Confronting it meant speaking out not only against the violence but the ideology, he said, meaning “those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.” Of course, as Obama seemed to recognize, it may be easier for Muslim leaders to focus on exhorting members of their community to adhere to those values if they themselves experience them in this country, and are not disdained by their fellow citizens and leaders. But there is no artifice in the message itself; these things are worth saying, even, or especially, when one is surrounded by bigots.
Speaking of which, Donald Trump didn’t like the speech. He announced big plans to live-tweet it, only to be caught by surprise when it ended after about fifteen minutes, before he’d had a chance to find anything particularly devastating: “Is that all there is? We need a new President—FAST!” He then complained about Obama using the acronym ISIL instead of ISIS “like almost everyone else” (fair enough), about the absence of a reference to “WAR with radical Islamic terrorists” (Obama: “we are at war with ISIL“), and, peculiarly, that “Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?” To that, some social-media users tweeted pictures of Trump standing with Muhammad Ali.
Trump and others have worked to turn wariness about Muslims and about immigrants generally into one big belt of fear. On this subject, Obama’s speech included a point of confusion. “I’ve ordered the Departments of State and Homeland Security to review the visa-waiver program under which the female terrorist in San Bernardino originally came to this country,” he said. Within hours, the White House had added a correction to the official transcript: he hadn’t meant to say “waiver,” since Malik did not come to the U.S. under that program, which is what allows people from thirty-eight countries, ranging from Switzerland to Singapore, to enter the country without being interviewed for a visa. She came on a K-1 “fiancée” visa, and underwent screening for it. (Farook, her husband, was born here.) Obama said that there wasn’t yet evidence that the couple had been dispatched by ISIS, as opposed to self-radicalizing, but said that they had certainly gone down a “dark path.”
Obama asked for another sort of clarification: “If Congress believes, as I do, that we are at war with ISIL, it should go ahead and vote to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists.” There should be a caveat there: when and if he gets an authorization, its wording should not be so elastic that it can be used for just about anything. Indeed, the contours of the Administration’s planned military action were the blurriest part of the speech. High on Obama’s list of what should not be done was this: “We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria.” But this may represent an aspiration rather an actual line that won’t be crossed. At the same time, Obama mentioned “deploying special-operations forces” in both countries, air strikes directed not only at ISIS leaders but at “infrastructure,” and the provisioning of tens of thousands of local forces.
If the speech had a single theme, it was that confrontation with ISIS would involve collaboration more than anything else. In addition to Congress and Muslim communities at home, Obama’s plan includes working with “friends and allies” on the battlefield, in stopping the financing of terror, and in other areas: “We’ve surged intelligence-sharing with our European allies. We’re working with Turkey to seal its border with Syria.” America is also, he said, working with the international community on “a process—and timeline—to pursue ceasefires and a political resolution to the Syrian war.” This, Obama said, would allow everyone, from the Russians to the Syrian people, to concentrate on fighting ISIS, “a group that threatens us all.” What that means in terms of the future of the Assad regime may be the hardest question to answer. (Obama also said that he would “urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice,” something that sounds practical but could have troubling civil-liberties implications.)
“The threat of terrorism is real, but we will overcome it,” Obama said. With a slight tweak of the words, he might have gone for “we shall overcome,” and echoed both the civil-rights anthem and Lyndon Johnson’s great address on the need for the Voting Rights Act, which was also about what was considered, in its time, to be an intractable problem. Obama did not come close to those rhetorical heights on Sunday night. One unusual element of the address was that the President, who had only twice before spoken from the Oval Office, didn’t sit at the desk—the Resolute Desk, a piece of furniture so iconic that it has a name—but stood at a lectern that his staff had set up in front of it. Apparently, speaking while sitting is not a mode he favors. The effect, though, was somewhat awkward. Some of his most powerful moments as a speaker have come after mass shootings, but they also have tended to be the addresses in which he found his theme in memorializing individual victims. On Sunday night, they were presented as a group, a variegated abstraction: “They were white and black; Latino and Asian; immigrants and American-born; moms and dads; daughters and sons.” Perhaps the great speech on San Bernardino is one he has yet to give. For now, the people taking up too much space in his head seemed, again, to be the Presidential candidates. If Obama’s speech was a message to them, it was straightforward: stop making the easy things hard and the hard ones a matter of demagoguery.
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Amy Davidson is a New Yorker staff writer. She is a regular Comment contributor for the magazine and writes a Web column, in which she covers war, sports, and everything in between.