What happens when we let fear, muddled thinking, ignorance, and political correctness guide us in confronting a threat to our constitutional freedoms?
We lose everything.
In the United States, our ability to enjoy our rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness rests largely on the protection the First Amendmentaccords to freedom of speech and its corollary, the freedom to exercise the religion of our choice – or, of course, to profess no religion at all. It follows, then, that we should both vigorously defend the First Amendment and subject to withering criticism any challenges to it. If we begin dodging or concealing the truth about a threat to free speech, whether out of fear of appearing improper or even of knowing the consequences, we place ourselves at risk of losing our freedom of speech – and everything else we cherish in a democracy.
Speech consists of words. Words and how we use them matter. So, in the annals of self-defeating political inanities, the Obama administration’s term for Islamist terrorism – “violent extremism” – stands out as unusually obfuscatory, semantically unsound, and craven. (The phrase encompasses other kinds of terrorist doctrines as well, but no one can fail to see which one in particular is being addressed.) Originating as ISIS-inspired attacks were starting to hit the United States, it baldly omits their motivating ideology and purports that “extremism” can exist as a rootless, groundless, free-floating phenomenon. The term was so patently contrived to avoid mention of Islam that Republican candidate Donald J. Trump, during last year’s presidential campaign, could appear courageous to many just by saying “Islamic terrorism.” Yet coining the insipid phrase “violent extremism” was just par for the course. Former President Obama’s repeated declarations that the faith in question had nothing to dowith all the bombing, beheading, and machete-slashing carried out to the cry of “Allahu Akbar!” looked, at best, cowardly – and at worst, complicit. Hillary Clinton followed Obama’s lead on the matter – all the way to a historic loss at the polls.
The consequences of Obama’s Islam-exculpatory doublespeak linger on – even with Trump in the White House. Though more than two months have passed since Trump’s inauguration, the FBI’s web site still has a pagedevoted to “violent extremism”; one has to open three links before arriving at a mention of ISIS (which does not, the site informs us with inexplicable canonical certitude, “represent mainstream Islam”). However, as of last year, the FBI had roughly a thousand terrorist investigations ongoing, of which a “significant number” (“hundreds”) involved potential ISIS followers. Knowing this, Obama nevertheless saw fit to muse that, “Americans are more in danger from their own bathtubs than from Islamist terrorists.” The blatantly phony equivalency drawn here belies the obvious, and not just that slipping in the tub is an accident, not an act of coldblooded murder; a bathtub death cannot terrify, or influence public opinion or public policy, whereas terrorism obviously does.
Trump has spoken openly about confronting “the hateful ideology of radical Islam” and claimed to “know more about ISIS than the generals,” but one might be forgiven for suspecting that he has no idea of what he’s talking about. For guidance, however, he should immediately consult Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born public intellectual, author, apostate from Islam, and fearless deliverer of uncomfortable truths about her former religion. Regarding Obama’s bathtub babble, she told me in a recent email exchange that “bathtubs don’t go around plotting terrorist attacks. Neither do guns and cars. It’s people. The question is one of intent, and it raises the question of how to prevent deliberate attacks carried out by individuals in the name of an ideology, rather than preventing accidents such as bathtub or car accidents.”
Hirsi Ali is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. For the latter, she has just published an comprehensive, thoroughly researched paper, The Challenge of Dawa: Political Islam and How to Counter It. (Dawa is, strictly speaking, Arabic for proselytizing for Islam, but as Hirsi Ali explains, given the troubling specifics of Islamic doctrine, it is “more complex, more sinister, and more far-reaching” than that.) The president and every high-level official in the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as every member of Congress, should read it. Now.