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A Key Shift for Obama in ISIS Address
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One particular passage in President Obama’s Sunday night address to the nation caught my attention:
“As we’ve become better at preventing complex multifaceted attacks like 9/11, terrorists turn to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society. It is this type of attack that we saw at Fort Hood in 2009, in Chattanooga earlier this year, and now in San Bernardino.”
At Ford Hood, a radicalized Muslim soldier, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, killed 12 soldiers and one civilian. In Chattanooga, another radicalized Muslim, Mohammad Abdulazeez, killed four Marines and a sailor. And we all know what happened in San Bernardino. What’s significant is that Obama linked all the assailants to Islamic extremism - or, in his words, to “a perverted interpretation of Islam.”
He didn’t quite say “Islamic terrorism” (the GOP’s preferred terminology), but he has shifted nonetheless, dumping some of the political correctness that has long hampered him. You may recall that when Fort Hood happened in 2009, Obama refused to state the obvious - despite the fact that Maj. Hasan had repeatedly emailed with a radical Islamic cleric, and that he had publicly contended, in lectures at the military base, that all Muslims should “fight those who do not believe in Allah.” Indeed, Obama’s Pentagon brass refused to call the attack an act of terror; they described it as just another case of workplace violence.
So I was glad when Obama plainly stated that “an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities.” Many Americans, who think that he has been pussyfooting around that issue for too long, needed to hear him say it. Perhaps some of the skeptics were also pleased when he challenged the Muslim community.
“It’s a real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse,” Obama said. “Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda promote, to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.”
But there is another big challenge Obama didn’t explicitly articulate.
Since he’s now willing to state the obvious about the reality of Islamic extremism, it’s past time for the Obama haters to cede some ground of their own. It’s time for them to state the obvious about the reality of mass shootings in America - that these hideous acts are mostly perpetrated by home-grown all-American white people who are fueled by workplace fury, anti-government zeal, antisocial pathologies, anti-abortion extremism, or whatever. And that, most importantly, they can all too easily indulge their furies because this particular nation is saturated with mass weaponry.
The husband and wife team in San Bernardino got their handguns legally from a California store called Annie’s Get Your Gun; they got their semi-automatic rifles from someone who reportedly bought them legally. Conservatives who insist on the term “Islamic terrorism” should at least be willing to recognize the value of hindering the weaponization of Islamic terrorism.
“We also need to make it harder for people to buy powerful assault weapons, like the ones that were used in San Bernardino,” Obama said. “I know there are some who reject any gun-safety measures, but the fact is that our intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, no matter how effective they are, cannot identify every would-be mass shooter, whether that individual was motivated by ISIL or some other hateful ideology. What we can do, and must do, is make it harder for them to kill.”
I have no problem throwing Islamic extremists (or, as Obama calls them, “perverted” interpreters of Islam) into the toxic American stew. Domestic terrorists come in all shapes and sizes - be they fanatics like the Farooks, who heard the ISIS dog whistle; or fanatics like Robert Lewis Dear, the Planned Parenthood killer who was raised Baptist and who, according to his ex-wife, “believed wholeheartedly in the Bible.” Some are more ideological than others, while some are simply more nuts than others.
But what they all have in common is they live in a nation awash in easily obtainable weaponry. So doesn’t logic dictate that we should impede the ability to wreak havoc? Is that concept really so hard to grasp? In the spirit of a nation coming together?
Don’t answer that.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia ( and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at