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Trump, Obama and the Politics of Evasion

(6) President Trump was right on Saturday to avoid stigmatizing any particular group in his remarks condemning violence and hatred. Doing so would unnecessarily elevate the profile of the angry losers and occasionally violent extremists who defame Americans and give them the P.R. victory they were seeking all along.

O.K., now here’s hoping you’re revolted by each of the six preceding points. Because, if you are, then maybe we can at last rethink the policy of euphemism, obfuscation, denial and semantic yoga that typified the Obama administration’s discussions of another form of terrorism.

That would be Islamist terrorism, or what former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano used to call “man-caused disasters” in order to “move away from the politics of fear,” as she explained in a 2009 Der Spiegel interview.

Napolitano’s “man-caused disasters” didn’t survive the political laugh test, but the fantastically elastic phrase “violent extremism” did. President Obama’s broad reluctance to use variants of the word “Islam” in proximity to “terrorism” became one of the staples of his presidency. The group that calls itself “Islamic State” was always and adamantly “ISIL” to him.

After Omar Mateen explicitly declared his fealty to the Islamic State in a 911 call and massacred 49 people at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June 2016, Obama acknowledged the blood bath as “an act of terror” but stressed that the “precise motivations of the killer” remained unknown.

Last November, a Somali student at Ohio State University rammed a car into a crowd of students and then began attacking them with a butcher knife before being shot dead. “If we increase our suspicion of people who practice a particular religion, we’re more likely to contribute to acts of violence than we are to prevent them,” said the White House spokesman Josh Earnest. As for Obama, I can find no record of him ever speaking publicly about the attack, which was so reminiscent of what happened Saturday in Charlottesville.

On the other hand, there is a record of what Obama believed were the causes of terrorism. “Extremely poor societies and weak states,” Obama explained in 2007, “provide optimal breeding grounds for disease, terrorism and conflict.” Later, during his administration, the State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf voiced the same sentiment when she blamed “lack of opportunity for jobs” as the “root causes that lead people to join these groups.”

The administration also found it important to emphasize shades of difference within the family of Islamist extremists. The Muslim Brotherhood — whose credo includes the words “jihad is our way; dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope” — was, according to the former director of national intelligence James Clapper, “a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried Al Qaeda.”

The administration walked back the “largely secular” line, but remained equivocal about what is arguably the largest hate group in the world. It also tended to equivocate when it came to apportioning historical blame for United States conflicts with militant adversaries. If Iran had taken Americans hostage and killed hundreds of our soldiers, well, as Obama often noted, hadn’t we helped overthrow the Mossadegh government back in 1953?

None of this history excuses Trump’s stubborn reluctance, rectified far-too belatedly on Monday, to call out the K.K.K. and neo-Nazis by name. On the contrary, it indicts him all the more, since it’s precisely the sort of bizarre and blatant evasiveness he used to denounce in his predecessor.

But it should also be a reminder that when it comes to looking the other way in the face of extremism and violence, failing to call evil groups by their correct names and providing economic alibis for moral depravity, liberals have their own accounts to settle. That may not be the most obvious lesson from Charlottesville, but it’s one that still needs to be learned.

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